It’s an old Scots term for days of mirth and amusement at Christmas. In the Middle Ages it was a period of misrule and revelry, of mock masses and masquerades, of celebration and not a little gluttony, that lasted the whole twelve days of Christmas, through the New Year (or Hogmanay) to Twelfth Night or Uphaliday.
At the period of which we are writing, a custom generally prevailed, which appears now in danger of becoming obsolete — “The Daft Days,” as they were appropriately termed, of Yule, New Year, and Handsel Monday, were set apart for the meeting of friends and intimate neighbours, to dine or sup (often both) together, when good cheer, home-brewed, and hearty welcome, promoted the conviviality and rustic mirth of the company.
The Farmers’ Three Daughters, by Alexander Balfour, 1822.
This bright picture of splendid conviviality wasn’t shared by everyone. The Scots writer J M Barrie (of The Admirable Crichton and Peter Pan fame) described it in his book Auld Licht Idylls of 1888 as “the black week of glum debauch that ushered in the year”. If ever there was a description of people taking their pleasures sadly, that was it.
The celebration has since become more limited in duration, with Hogmanay becoming the main winter festival. The Daft-days are remembered but not observed.
Daft in modern English means silly, foolish or mad, but here it has an older sense — which survives in Scots — of somebody who is thoughtless or giddy in their mirth, so daft-days is an exact translation of the French fêtes de fou.