Twelfth Night (Day)

You may have heard of the Twelve Days of Christmas or even celebrated it in some form as the twelve days leading up to Christmas. But did you know that’s backwards? Traditionally, the twelve days of Christmas start on Christmas and continue for twelve days after, ending January 6th with Epiphany, or Three Kings Day. The whole time in between used to be one long celebration called Christmastide, kind of like what we experience now as the dead week between Christmas and New Years, but with more parties. Twelfth Night was the end of the festivities, celebrated either on January 6th or on the 5th as “Epiphany Eve” depending on how people counted the nights.

Today, Three Kings Day or Epiphany is still celebrated in some Catholic cultures with at least as much gusto as Christmas, with a gift exchange to commemorate the gifts brought by the Wise Men and a King Cake containing a small toy baby or a bean so that whoever finds it gets good luck for the year, and sometimes the honor of being “king” and bringing next year’s cake.

I like the idea of stretching out the Christmas celebrations as long as possible since in the northern hemisphere, this is a pretty bleak time of year. But for people like me who procrastinate taking down Christmas, there’s some bad news: it’s bad luck to keep your decorations up after Three Kings Day. Christmas is over and it’s time to move on. In fact, if you keep them up as long as Candlemas (February 2nd), people used to believe it would bring death into the home – especially if you hang on to the evergreens and holly berries. So, I suppose I’d better start taking down the tree. Happy Three Kings Day!

A Renaissance painting of the three wise men bringng gifts to Mary and baby Jesus.
Adoration of the Magi by Bartolome Esteban Murillo circa 1660

Elder Lore

With cold and flu season upon us, it seems like a good time to talk about the Elder tree or Elderberry. Elderberry has become trendy in the medicine aisle thanks to studies that suggest that it may help fight influenza, but its use in medicine goes back to ancient times in Europe, parts of Asia, north Africa, and North America. It’s also an important feature in European folklore – a bringer of healing and also of death.

Elderberry (Sambucus) is an interesting plant – a large (12 feet/4 meter+) shrub with pretty umbrellas of tiny white flowers in the summer and dark berries in the fall. In the wild, it often grows along streambanks, but it can also be fairly drought tolerant and does well in a variety of soils (it grows well in my yard, which has sub-optimal soil, water, and sun conditions). It likes sun but will grow in part shade, and survives in both hot and cold climates. Elderberry is a survivor. It has hollow stems that have been used for pipes and bellows, but be careful – most of the plant is toxic! Some Native American peoples used the plant to induce vomiting. Only the flowers and berries of certain species are edible (black elderberry is most commonly used), and even then, it’s safer to cook them before using them (and don’t forage berries unless you are 100% certain they come from a safe source).

The flowers can be used to make a tea that’s popular outside the United States. The black berries range from very tart to sort of sweet and are made into jams, syrups, and wines. Some people swear by the syrup as a way to stay healthy in the winter, and some studies have found that people who take elderberry syrup recover faster from influenza, while other studies have found no effect, so the jury is still out as far as an official recommendation. The berries of the edible species are fairly healthy regardless, with plenty of fiber and vitamin C as well as other vitamins and minerals, and the syrup tastes yummy on pancakes.

The contrast between the healthy berry and the poisonous leaves, stems, and seeds of the Elder might be why the folklore around elderberries is so varied. Many European cultures believed that the Elder provided protection from dark magic and other evils when planted near the house or when a small piece was carried with the person. But don’t take a piece without asking! The Elder tree was supposed to be protected by a spirit or Elder Mother who would curse you if you cut the plant without her permission. Luckily, you can ask for permission, and if there’s no response, then you’re allowed to cut (I’ll admit it – I’ve asked, and I’ve never heard a peep in response 😉 ). But you don’t want to use the Elder wood in your house or your cooking fire because you’ll invite in the Fair Folk that honor the tree – I’ve wondered if that piece of lore came from poisonous fumes from the smoke, but I’ve never found a clear answer and never tried burning the wood myself.

Despite its potential protective or healing powers, the Elder tree was associated with winter, darkness, and death in many European cultures. Sleeping beneath the Elder might let you glimpse the Faeries or their home, which was sometimes associated with the land of the dead. Medieval stories said that the Elder was cursed for being either the tree from which Jesus’s cross was made or the one where Judas hanged himself. The Elder isn’t really large or strong enough for either of those purposes, but perhaps its more diminutive nature is part of the curse – there’s a similar legend about the dogwood tree.

Still, with all respect to my Celtic and Norse ancestors, I continue to associate the Elder with summer when its flowers bloom after the spring blossoms have faded, and it’s hard to think of it as cursed when it survives everything the Utah mountains can throw at it. But maybe its association with winter is appropriate if it turns out that it can keep colds and flus away.

Michaelmas

Today, September 29th, is Michaelmas, or the Feast of Saint Michael (Michael’s Mass, similar to Christmas – Christ’s Mass). Traditionally, this was the end of the harvest and the day rents and loans were due. Old British legends also said that this was the day that Saint Michael defeated Lucifer and cast him out of heaven. Lucifer fell into a blackberry bush and either spat or peed on them and spoiled the fruit, so blackberries should not be harvested after Michaelmas. In other versions of this superstition, it’s the pooka – a Faerie creature – who spoils the blackberries at the end of harvest time.

Ripe and unripe blackberries on the vine.
The tastiest blackberries are totally black and have lost their shine, but today is supposed to be the last day to pick them before they’re spoiled.

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.