Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Holy Thorn and calendar change

The Holy, or Glastonbury, Thorn (Crataegus monogyna ‘Biflora’) is traditionally supposed to produce flowers on Christmas Eve each year; in fact it produces flowers throughout much of the winter.

An anonymous poem, Here begynneth the lyfe of Joseph of Armathia, believed to have been written early in the sixteenth century, mentions three Thorn trees which ‘Do burge and bere grene leaues at Christmas’.  But it is not until 1535, 15 years after the publication of the poem, that the trees’ Christmas flowering was first recorded.

When the calendar was reformed in 1752 Holy Thorns, both in Glastonbury and elsewhere, attracted attention as people watched them to see if they would produce their Christmas blossoms according to the old or new calendar.  In January 1753 it was reported in the Gentleman’s Magazine that on Christmas Eve, 24 December 1752, hundreds of people gathered in Glastonbury to see if the Thorns would produce flowers.  No flowers appeared, but when the crowds reassembled on Old Christmas Eve, 5 January 1753, the trees blossomed, confirming the onlookers’ doubts about the validity of the new calendar.  However, later in 1753 a correspondent to the Magazine stated that after reading reports of the Old Christmas Eve flowering he had questioned the vicar of Glastonbury, who informed him that the trees had blossomed ‘fullest and finest about Christmas Day New style, or rather sooner’.

At Quainton, in Buckinghamshire, a county particularly upset by the calendar change, over 2,000 people gathered to watch a thorn which they remembered as being a descendent of a Glastonbury tree:

‘but the people finding no apppearance of bud, ’twas agreed by all, that Decemb. 25 N.S. could not be Christmas-Day and accordingly refused going to church …’

Perhaps the word ‘remembered’ is significant; was the Quainton tree really a Holy Thorn?

Until early in the twentieth century people continued to visit Holy Thorns in Herefordshire and elsewhere  on Old Christmas Eve.

Adapted from Vickery’s Folk Flora, to be published in April 2019.

Images: main, Holy Thorn in St John the Baptist churchyard, Glastonbury, Somerset, 16 December 2015, when the Thorn was said to be flowering particularly well; inset, same tree, 12 December 2018.