On Christmas Day it happened so,
Down in the meadows for to plough;
As we were ploughing on so fast
Up comes sweet Jesus hisself at last.
"O man, O man, what makes you plough
So hard upon the Lord's birthday?"
The farmer answered him with great speed:
"For the plough this day we have great need."
His arms did quaver to and fro
His arms did quaver, he could not plough.
The ground did open and lose him in,
Before he could repent of sin.
His wife and children are out of place,
His beasts and cattle they die away;
His beasts and cattle, they die away,
For ploughing on our Lord's birthday.
Bushes and Briars (Vaughan Williams), Ed Roy Palmer, ISBN 1-86143-072-8
Collected by Vaughan Williams.
A set recorded by Fred Hamer from May Bradley of Ludlow, Shropshire, in 1959, appears in Hamer's Garners Gay
(EFDS Publications, 1967) and can be heard on A Century of Song
(EFDSS CD 002, 1998)
The song has rarely been found in tradition; presumably its rather savage nature would have limited appeal, in the later 20th century at least. We should bear in mind, though, that strict observation of the Sabbath -and even more so, such important religious holidays as Christmas- was still common in all sectors of society when Ella Leather and Vaughan Williams were collecting; and one did not as a rule attempt to get songs on a Sunday. The great Norfolk singer, Harry Cox, was very unwilling to sing or play music on a Sunday, and he died in 1971. He wasn't very untypical.
Roud lists only three (perhaps four) examples. The earliest was printed in Alice Gillington's Songs of the Open Road in 1911 as In Dessexshire as it Befell, and it was noted "from a Gypsy singer" and described as "a New Forest Gypsy Carol".
(The text was reproduced more recently in Geoffrey Grigson, The Penguin Book of Ballads, 1975).
In 1912, Ella Leather and Ralph Vaughan Williams got a set, On Christmas Day, from Mrs. Esther Smith at Dilwyn, near Weobley in Herefordshire; that is the one quoted here. Mrs. Smith was also of Gypsy stock. Finally, Fred Hamer recorded the song in 1959 from May Bradley at Ludlow, Shropshire. She described the song as having been her mother's favourite; her mother turned out to be none other than Esther Smith. Esther wasn't particularly severe or puritanical; she also gave Vaughan Williams the quite racy Riding Down to Portsmouth, though he didn't make a note of the words.
Essentially, then, we have only two discrete versions of the song, which appears to have been found only in Gypsy tradition, though it will doubtless have been known in settled communities too at one time. Cecil Sharp noted a tune (without text) in Armscote, Warwickshire, 1910, from an unknown singer, that may belong to this song. It appears never to have been published.
As for the implicit cruelty of the narrative, we shouldn't be too surprised. Such "cautionary tales", whether religious or secular, have never been uncommon. Consider the enormously popular Struwelpeter stories, for example. The past wasn't, much of the time, a very nice place.
(Search Roud index at VWML)