I was disappointed that readers didn’t come forward following my column about unromantic Christmas gifts. I’m dying to learn what rubbish items you’ve received and yet, having said that, I understand that the giver of the awful present might also read this column and so a certain reticence is perfectly understandable. If I guarantee your anonymity, would that help?

I did hear from a reader who declares that her husband defies the stereotype and is the ‘perfect’ gift-giver. Clare Proctor has never suffered the misery of unwrapping a set of pans, writing of husband Howard: “He always buys me great gifts, jewellery, gorgeous perfume, my favourite Florentines, lovely scarves…the list goes on.” She says she sometimes struggles buying gifts for him but adds: “You can never have too many pairs of socks or boxes of chocolate! Also, this year, we treated each other to tickets to see Nicole Scherzinger in Sunset Boulevard in the West End in January - my wish; Howard's gift!” I think we all need a Howard in our lives!

On another note, Peter Allen from Gilling near Helmsley got in touch following my column about Plough Monday. He had himself composed a piece on that very subject for his parish magazine and includes more detail, saying the custom “was especially prevalent in the North and consisted of a gang of youths, sometimes as many as forty, dragging a plough through the streets. Dressed in white shirts, with a warmer coat underneath, they sometimes blackened their faces. Colour was added with the use of ribbons attached front and back, and knots of ribbons in their hats... An old lady was dressed up and joined the group. More often than not this was a boy in women’s clothing. George Young in his ‘History of Whitby’ refers to these as ‘Madgies’, or ‘Madgy Pegs’ and they went round from house to house, rattling collection tins. When they received money, they shouted 'Huzzah', but if nothing was forthcoming the cry was, 'Hunger and starvation'.”

Darlington and Stockton Times: Goathland Plough Stots on their Day of Dance in January 2008

He also mentioned a play that was performed in the village where I grew up. “There is an Ampleforth Play which incorporates sword dancing. The Ampleforth Play contains elements of a traditional Plough Play and as it was performed around Christmas, it would therefore seem safe to assume that it was part of a Plough Monday festival. Some features of it are that the music was provided by a fiddler and a drummer but that songs were unaccompanied. The troupe of players moved from place to place in procession thus: The two musicians, a flag bearer, Clown and Queen, the King and the rest of the dancers/actors in pairs. Interestingly the Queen was always played by a man who had not had his hair cut for 12 months before the performance. Preparation for the play had begun months before… and dancing masters toured the villages of Cleveland teaching the words of the play and the sword dances en-route. The Ampleforth Play does not seem to have been performed locally for well over 100 years, although there is a reference to it having been produced in London in the early 1920s.”

Darlington and Stockton Times: Goathland Plough Stots on their Day of Dance in January 2013

Peter asked if I could find anything in my dad’s files, and sure enough, I dug out a newspaper clipping from 1966 which suggests it was performed more recently. I don’t know who the writer was, nor which paper it came from, but it states that the Goathland Plough Stots "performed a play very similar to that acted by the Ampleforth Plough Stots… The Rev. Patrick Rowley, vicar of Ampleforth, is at present collecting information regarding the Plough Monday celebrations which I remember being regularly observed in Cleveland when I was a boy." The writer adds that the tradition was a "relic of pre-Reformation days" and describes an event that has remained more or less the same for centuries. One difference was that by 1966, the donations collected were spent on a community celebration at the local inn, whereas originally, it was to "pay for the votive lights in church. These were renewed and burned throughout the octave of their feast and were associated with their prayers that God would speed the plough and give a bounteous harvest."

With the incessantly wet conditions we’ve had recently playing havoc for many farmers trying to grow winter crops, let’s hope the blessings of the ploughs work and we can expect far better weather in 2024.

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