Glastonbury Thorn

Glastonbury Thorn

04 January 2013
Our young hawthorn
Our young hawthorn

Well, it isn't the 6" to 12" of snow that was threatened, but our hawthorn is looking about as wintery as the rest of our garden right now.

All things considered, that's a good thing, especially given the daffodils that were thrusting up as late as St. Nicholas' Day, and the primroses that were actually blooming at the same time. Still, it's hard not to compare one's own hawthorn to the only hawthorn that would be flowering right about now: The Glastonbury Thorn, a sprig of which always garnishes the Queen's breakfast tray on Christmas morning, a tradition dating back to the reign of James I. (She also gets to open all her presents first. Even before the kids. But that's a different story.)

The task of cutting the sprig of thorn is currently entrusted to the oldest student of the St. John's Infant School in Glastonbury, who does the honors in a ceremony complete with processions and carols. The tradition is meant to commemorate the legend that the Glastonbury Thorn sprouted when Joseph of Arimathea arrived at Glastonbury with the Holy Grail, and thrust his staff - which was made of wood from the True Cross - into Wearyall Hill, gathering his strength before he secreted the Holy Grail in the sacred spring now known as the Chalice Well. The tree demonstrated its miraculous nature by flowering twice a year: once, like other hawthorns in May, and a second, smaller flowering at Christmas.

The Glastonbury Thorn
The Glastonbury Thorn

Others believe that the tree's unusual flowering proves that Joseph of Arimathea did in fact bring the hawthorn to England from Palestine - a notion that is at least partially supported by DNA analysis. But the tree's veneration may also reflect the hawthorn's longstanding association with witchcraft and magic. According to Scott Cunningham, the hawthorn is the quintessential witches' tree, because witches fleeing persecution transformed themselves into hawthorns in order to escape their pursuers. The hawthorn is also part of the fairy tree triad of oak, ash, and thorn, beneath which the fairies are supposed to dance - and for that reason, it was used to decorate Maypoles. However, Cunningham's emphasis on the hawthorn's beneficial and protective nature, is offset by Roy Vickery's emphasizing the tree's more dangerous, volatile associations. Many traditions warn that bringing even a sprig of hawthorn indoors results in misfortune, a belief that is linked to its association with the uncanny month of May, the month of endings and uncertain beginnings, during which the Green Man is first wedded, then sacrificed, to the Great Mother.

Our yard with winter dressing
Our yard with winter dressing

Even the Christian Glastonbury Thorn demonstrates its objection to domestication in the fact that it can only be propagated by cuttings, not from seed. And it may be that association with magic that has led to the multiple assaults on the Holy Thorn over the years. The original Glastonbury Thorn was burned as a "relic of superstition" by Cromwell's troops during the English Civil War. Those same troops hanged the last abbot of Glastonbury on top of Tor Hill in 1539. And in 2010, someone chopped all the branches off the tree - branches which resiliently sprang up again, only to be vandalized once more.

More important, however, is the Thorn's stubbornness in the matter of the calendar revision. When the Gregorian calendar was instituted in 1753, scores flocked to Glastonbury to witness whether the Thorn would conform to the new calendar. Needless to say, they were disappointed, and the Thorn remained true to its pagan roots and curmudgeonly nature, blooming instead on Old Christmas Eve or Twelfth Night - which is why many might argue, it ought to be the patron tree of half-price markdown and last minute shoppers.

© - Erica Obey
Photos © - George Baird