British Traditions > January

The Romans named January after their God Janus. Janus was said to have two faces, one of which looked back at the year past and the other towards the year ahead. In later years, the cold month of January was called Wolfmanath by the Anglo Saxons since, in their experience, it was the time when hungry wolves came around the villages in search of food.

Twelfth Night - 5th January

The night of the 5th January and the day of the 6th January are the Twelfth Night and Twelfth Day of Christmastide. In the Christian calendar they are the Vigil and Feast of the Epiphany. Christmas Twelfth Day was supposed to be the last day of feasting and celebration which traditionally lasted for a full twelve days.

One tradition that still persists is the idea that all decorations must be taken down on the Twelfth Day of Christmas or bad luck will follow.

The Twelfth Night revelries were actually the climax of the whole Christmastide and up until the middle of the 19th century a special cake was baked called Twelfth Cake. Often a bean and pea was put in the cake and whoever got it in their portion was dubbed King (bean) or Queen (pea) of misrule. Today there are only echoes of this tradition in putting a silver coin in the Christmas pudding and finding paper crowns in crackers.

St. Distaff's Day - 7th January

This day has no named Saint but it was the day when women returned to spinning and other tasks. A distaff is part of a spinning wheel.

Plough Monday

Plough Monday
This was the Monday after Twelfth Night when the men of the villages would dress up in various costumes, disguise themselves by blackening their faces and drag a plough around the village singing and dancing at each door. The aim was to collect money and anyone who refused to contribute was threatened with having their doorstep ploughed up. As with all these ancient customs the details of costume and activity varied greatly from district to district.

St. Hilary's Day - 13th January

This is the feast day of St. Hilary who was Bishop of Poitiers in the 4th Century. In 1851 he was made a Doctor of the Church by the pope. The University Term (Hilary Term) and the Legal Year began around the 13th of January.

St. Agnes Day - 21st January

On St. Agnes Day sheep were blessed and on the previous day, St. Agnes Eve, young girls would fast in the hope of dreaming of their future husband during the night.

St Paul's Day - 25th January

Traditionally the weather on this day was supposed to predict the sort of weather there would be for the whole year. It was also believed that the weather of St Paul's Day (if correctly interpreted) could give some insight into what the coming year had in store. "If the sun shines it betokens a good year; if it rains snow; indifferent; if misty, it predicts a great death, if it thunder, great wind, and death of people that year". From the Shepherd's Almanac 1676.