Hawthorn tree lore

Hawthorn trees are among the most magical in European folklore – and also the most conflicting. Good luck or bad luck? Friend or foe? It depends on who you ask and when. But they’re gorgeous trees either way, with their pink or white blossoms and their trunks that get furrowed and gnarled with age. The most famous hawthorn is probably the Glastonbury Thorn at Glastonbury Abbey. It is said to have sprung from Joseph of Arimethea’s staff when he arrived there bearing the Holy Grail. Interestingly, the Glastonbury Thorn (or its current descendants) blooms twice a year – once in spring, like most hawthorns, and once at Christmas.

A lovely hawthorn tree in the Logan Cemetery – really, my picture doesn’t do justice to its cascade of late-May blooms.

Hawthorn trees were supposed to be particular favorites of the Fair Folk, often guarding the entryways into Elfland as well as ancient holy wells. For this reason, it’s bad luck to cut them down. There are roads in the British Isles that were redirected to go around old hawthorn trees, and some buildings there are said to be cursed because a hawthorn was removed to make way for the building. The Fay are very jealous of their trees.

I was delighted to find that the Logan Cemetery hawthorn has its own gnome guardian among its branches. He looks like he’s seen a few battles, maybe protecting the entrance to the Otherworld?

On the other hand, it was traditional to cut branches of blooming hawthorn for May Day celebrations. So, perhaps this is the one time it’s permissible to disturb the tree? Maybe it allows the Fay to join the celebrations. One should never bring the hawthorn branches or flowers inside, though. That might invite the Fair Folk’s attention (Branches from the Glastonbury Thorn supposedly decorate the queen’s table at Christmas, but maybe she gets a special dispensation).

The Logan Cemetery hawthorn has two trees growing from the debris collected over the years between its trunk and branches: this little spruce and the sapling by the gnome, which might be some kind of plum. When rowan trees grew in the joints of other trees, they were called “flying rowans” and were thought to be especially potent magic. Maybe this “flying spruce” growing from the hawthorn also has some special power.

Some people felt it was good luck to have a hawthorn growing near (but not too near) their house, while others didn’t want the Fair Folk that close. If you decide to plant a hawthorn, it’s a hardy tree with spring flowers, an informal growth habit, and tiny red fruit in the fall-winter (edible in most species but not tasty). Paul’s Scarlet, the one in these pictures, was discovered in the mid-1800s and has double pink flowers (wild European hawthorns, including the Glastonbury Thorn, are usually white), but it often loses its leaves early in the summer. Crimson Cloud is a pink-flowered European hawthorn that keeps its leaves until fall, and American hawthorns or maythorns also make nice yard trees. I haven’t found any stories associating American hawthorns with the Fair Folk, and I guess you can decide if that’s a pro or a con.

Buried in woollen; or, Life, liberty, and the right to eat hamburgers any day of the week

I’ve been reading through some English sources from the late 1600s that mentioned people being “Buried in Woollen.” I wondered at first if Woollen was a place, but there were notes throughout about people not complying. So I did some more research and discovered this random history fact of the day:

In 1666 and again in 1678, King Charles II passed laws that made it illegal to be buried in anything but British wool cloth. No fancy clothes. No white linen shrouds. Plain old wool. Why? To bolster the all-important English wool trade, of course. Everyone’s going to die, and the last thing they’re going to do on their way out is support the national economy. The only exceptions were plague victims (bury them fast to avoid getting infected) and the very poor. If you didn’t comply, you paid a 5 pound fine–a pretty significant sum back then. Some people thought it was worth the fine to be buried in their best clothes, and eventually enforcement got pretty lax, so in the early 1800s the law was finally repealed. But if you’re a writer burying a character in Britain between 1666 and 1814, make sure they’re wearing their woollens!

So what’s that have to do with your right to eat a hamburger right now if that’s what you’re craving?

During the Renaissance, Monarch and Parliament regulated almost every aspect of life and death: what their citizens ate, drank, wore, and read, where they went to church (and they had to go), and where and how they were married and buried. The law also had a significant impact on where people could travel, what work they did, who could inherit their property, and sometimes even who they would marry.

Modern governments still regulate some of these aspects of life, especially when they might impact public safety, but usually not with the same attention to detail as Renaissance governments. Are you an author? Or maybe you’re planning a vacation? In Renaissance England, you couldn’t print a book or travel abroad without the government’s express approval of your plans and of your good character. When the government wanted to support the fishing trade, they banned the eating of meat during much of the year. No hamburgers unless they said so.

People accepted many of these restrictions and rebelled against others quietly, but those who did so loudly found themselves in jail (gaol, as they spelled it) or at the gallows. These words from 1776 may not seem like much more than nostalgia and idealism to us today, but keeping in mind previous attitudes about people’s relationship with the state, they were revolutionary in more ways than one:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”