Plough Monday and Plough Plays, LeicestershirePlough Monday is the first Monday after Twelfth Day, so it can occur from January 7th to the 12th depending on the calendar. Given the state of the ground in most Januarys in this country ploughing is not one of the tasks to be undertaken on the farm at this time of year, which somewhat paradoxically helps to explain the origin of Plough Monday customs.
With funds and stores low after Christmas, and for some a lack of work, the custom grew it seems for farm-hands to try to earn a penny or two, and perhaps more importantly a glass or three, by what could only loosely be called entertaining their neighbours. It is also probably linked to an old practice of blessing the (at that season redundant) ploughs in church, or just the communal plough kept in the church for those unable to afford their own.
The custom evolved of gangs of farm-workers pushing a plough before them and dressing up in strange gear (partly to amuse, partly as a disguise) while begging money or drink from those they approached. Some cross-dressing was often involved (any excuse), and the stuffing of clothes with straw to make men seem larger – surely the origin of the Whittlesey Straw Bear parade that takes place on this day still (actually revived in the latter part of the 20th century). In the staid Victorian era the authorities took against the event, which had apparently become more and more drunken, with the implicit threat of violence against those who preferred not to indulge the plough-pushers.
In some eastern areas of the country like Rutland and Leicestershire more sophisticated means of entertainment were developed, with doubtless the hopes of higher rewards, Plough Plays being very rough and readily costumed dramas with a basic plot and stock characters, generally involving a combat scene to allow for mock-heroics.
More British Folk Customs?