Plough Sunday is thought to be a very ancient festival which was revived by the Victorians. Traditionally it is celebrated on the first Sunday after Epiphany, which falls on 6 January.
In the medieval period, when there was only one plough in each village, the village plough was brought into church for a blessing before ploughing began in Plough Monday. By Victorian times, when many farms owned their own plough, a representative plough was brought into church and local farmers asked the Rector or Vicar to bless the plough.
After the blessing, the plough was traditionally pulled through the village led by a Fool and a ‘Betsy’ (a boy dressed as a woman). The procession stopped at as many pubs and friendly houses as possible for revellers to demand drinks. Pennies were also collected along the route. Anyone not paying a penny was likely to find a furrow cut across their land by morning.
Modern farming practices have changed, and the widespread sowing of winter wheat means that much farming is now carried out in the autumn. Churches thinking of re-introducing the blessing of the plough might wish to consider the autumn as a time to hold the service, especially if a local ploughing match is held at that time of year. If there is a Young Farmer’s Club locally, Plough Services can be a good way of involving them in brining the plough into church and taking part in the service.
Other ways of bringing Plough Services can include having a large modern plough and tractor outside the church if space allows, or bringing a small modern cultivator (such as would be used on a small holding or market garden) into church.
A local example
Plough Sunday was re-introduced in Haslington in 2010 and was the last of the traditional countryside services to be re-introduced. It is now firmly established as a time of celebration after Christmas and is usually held on the Sunday after Epiphany (unless this is 7 or 8 January, in which case it is postponed a week). The celebrations include not only the service in church, but also a Ploughman’s Lunch in one of the local pubs, something which is appreciated and attended by both the regular congregation and by local farming families.
There have been a number of benefits in Haslington in retaining the traditional January date for Plough Sunday. The first is that farmers are not so busy in early January. (although harsh weather can make it difficult for some to attend if they have livestock to attend too) as they are in August when Lammastide takes place. This means they are more able to attend the Ploughman’s Lunch as well as the service, something which can be difficult at Lammastide. Secondly, it is opportunity to say thank you to those who work so hard to produce our food, something which is especially important and meaningful when there is snow and ice on the ground. Finally it means that the traditional farming celebrations of Plough Sunday (January), Rogation (May/June depending on the date of Easter) and Lammastide (August) are fairly evenly spread through the year.