Every Christmas time in a tradition dating back to the reign of King James I, a sprig of winter hawthorn blossom is presented to the reigning British monarch. By custom the blossom is used to decorate the Royal festive table but in doing so it poses a Yuletide conundrum. Christmas in the northern hemisphere, unlike Christmas here in the south, occurs in winter. So what is hawthorn doing flowering in the winter tide of an English December?
The unlikely answer is steeped in legend and early Christian folklore. Following the crucifixion, Saint Joseph of Arimathea is said to have travelled from the Holy Land to English shores where, weary after his long voyage, he thrust his staff into the ground on Wearyall Hill in Glastonbury. The day was Christmas Eve and the staff, which Joseph had earlier cut from the same tree Roman soldiers had used to make Christ’s Crown of Thorns, miraculously took root in the ground, developing overnight into a hawthorn with the unique ability to flower twice a year. Once in spring and again in the winter.
This then is the story of the tree they called the “Glastonbury Thorn”.
Written records of the Thorn do not appear until 1502 when it was recorded that the tree “do burge and bere greene leaves at Christmas” and “growth in Werall”, but undoubtedly the source of the legend is much older. Sir William Brereton visited the tree in 1635 and took cuttings from its branches, carving initials on its trunk and noting as he did so that many had done the same before him, writing afterwards “so famous and so much visited and frequented on the day of Christ’s nativity.”
Brereton was to become a formidable general in Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army during those rather uncivil, English Civil Wars. He was Parliament’s Commander in Chief in Cheshire when James son, Charles I had his Crown forcibly removed which, being firmly attached to his head at the time, created something of a headache for the monarchy.
The King was replaced by the autocratic Cromwell, a Puritan zealot who, amongst other things, hated Christmas and kings but not necessarily in that order, dismissing the traditions of one as superstitious nonsense and the Divine Right of the other as an anachronous blight on society. The Thorn he regarded as just another ancient superstition so one of his blockheaded, Round Headed soldiers, taking inspiration from what they had done previously to the King, chopped at it with an axe. The Puritan commentator James Howell recorded that when he did so, the tree poked the solider in the eye with a thorn, blinding him.
“…going to cut down an ancient white hawthorn-tree, which because she budded before others, might be an occasion of superstition, had some of the prickles flew into his eye, and made him monocular.”
Chalk up one for the Mayblooms then.
After the death of that Christmas Grinche Cromwell, the restored Merry Monarch Charles II overturned the Yuletide ban and the Glastonbury Thorn was born anew from cuttings that had been preserved in church yards. The tree survives to this day as grafts in various places throughout Britain although in recent times Cromwellian style vandal attacks have been perpetrated on the plant growing in the original location at Wearyall Hill. Yet always the Thorn, like some sort of botanical Lazarus, rises again.
The Glastonbury Thorn is a variety of hawthorn, specifically Crataegus monogyna var. biflora, the biflora bit in the title referring to the plant’s unique ability to flower bi-annually. The appeal of this multi flowering tree is perhaps understandable as it is an addition to a story of a tree that has long been steeped in arcane folklore. In some places in the British Isles in years past, hawthorns were sometimes referred to as ‘faerie trees’ and it was said carrying a sprig in your pocket would protect you from evil and the depredations of the faeries that we all know lurk at the bottom of every garden.
Hawthorns in the form of the single flowering Crataegus monogyna were brought to Australia by the early settlers and the tree gives its name to a Melbourne suburb and an AFL footy team, the name apparently developing after a remark made in the early days by Superintendent Charles La Trobe when he compared the native shrubs to the east of the town to flowering hawthorn bushes.
Hawthorns in time were to become an invaluable hedging plant in the colonies and were used as windbreaks and as living boundary markers. Settlers found that thorns were particularly useful in retaining wandering stock as they could be planted in rows in a process known as hedge laying. In this process, trees were planted closely together with a pleach cut into the back of each trunk and a pliable hinge of wood at the front. The trunk of the tree would then be laid down at a 45° angle to the next trunk with stakes driven into the plants to keep them in position creating a unique-looking, stock proof hedge.
Post and rail fencing was a feature of Yallambie but it is probable that hawthorn hedging was also incorporated in places during the farming era as a few remnants of these plants remain marking old boundary lines along with a few stand-alone specimens. Regrettably Crataegus monogyna is classed as an environmental weed in Victoria resulting in a modern minimization of the plant alongside river side environments yet for all this, the reality is it is a beautiful small flowering tree, very hardy and much loved by native birds. Hawthorns were in bloom in Yallambie for a week or so in October with the peculiar, sickly sweet smell of their flowers filling the air and mixing with the drone of bees as a herald of the onset of warmer weather. Hawthorn flowers give way to pome fruit in an Australian December and as a cut foliage, this fruit or rather haw berries make a striking arrangement in a vase on the festive table without the disadvantage of the cats’ wee like fragrance of the earlier flowers.
Christmas is a time with some long established if controvertible traditions and the Christmas wanderings of Joseph of Arimathea could be said to be one of these. While the Gospels generally agree on the role he played in the burial of Jesus, they remain silent regarding other details. Prior to the fourth century, the previously stated legend developed that Joseph had come to Britain after the Crucifixion and Medieval writers in Britain were later able to furnish Joseph with a background story, binding him up to the Arthurian legend and declaring him responsible for bringing the cup of Christ’s Last Supper with him to English shores – the celebrated Holy Grail of legend.
Dan Brown borrowed a page from this well used book, making himself a wealthy man along the way and confirming the reality that every story has the potential to become legend. Like the idea behind the Nativity itself, the story of the Grail represents a search for meaning, a search that we are all on at one time or another and not just at Christmas. As for the common hawthorn, while it is true that it is an indigenous plant of the British Isles, some writers on this subject have also suggested that the bi-flowering variety Sir William Brereton found at Glastonbury might once have been a native of the Middle East.
Who’d have thunk? Stranger things than that are possible at Christmas. Ask any five-year old. In every fiction then it seems we might be closer to the truth than the lies that surround us and in every search can be found meaning.