Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

QUERY: Whit branches

Posted on by royvickery |

027Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud in their Dictionary of English Folklore, 2000: 387, state that a ‘widely reported custom [at Whitsun, also known as Pentecost] which apparently died out in the late 19th century, was the decoration of churches with boughs, especially birch [Betula spp.], placed in holes at the end of pews and elsewhere’.  At present it is thought that the custom continues only at the church of St John the Baptist, in Frome, Somerset (see under Material Collected on this website).  The custom has never been satisfactorily explained; why was it done?

On a visit to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin in April 2015 it was interesting to see a 042photograph of the first service to be held in the church after the Second World War.  This took place on Whit Sunday 1953, when the ruined church was apparently decorated with young birch trees.

The German scholar and folklorist John Smith, of Bath,  has kindly supplied the following note:

Maien, feminine plural noun (obviously connected with Mai = May) refers to small birch trees traditionally tied to doorposts for the May Festival.  In his Deutsches Wörterbuch 6, 1474,  Grimm gives Maien for birch branches, etc., fetched from the woods at Whitsun and used in towns and villages to decorate houses and churches.  The word Maien is no doubt obsolete.

Thus at one time the decoration of churches with birch at Whitsun was known in both Britain and Germany.  It continues only at Frome in the U.K., does it continue anywhere else in Europe?  And can anyone explain why it was done?

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Comments:                                                                                                                     1.  Birch is associated with Whitsun in Phillip Stubbes’ famous passage in his Anatomie of Abuses, 1583:  ‘Against May, Whitsonday, or other time, all the yung men and maides, olde men and wives, run gadding all night to the woods, groves, hils and mountains, where they spend all the night in pleasant pastimes; and in the morning they return, bringing with them birch and branches of trees, to deck their assemblies withall’ [RV, 13 June 2016; quote taken from Bob Pegg,  Rites and Riots:  Folk Customs of Britain and Europe, 1981: 34].

2.   According to Marcel de Cleene & Marie Claire Lejeune in their Compendium of Symbolic and Ritual Plants in Europe, 2002, vol. 1: 150:  ‘It is well known that the Birch plays an important role in Russian folklore.  The Russians regard it was a source of all light (indeed its bark ignites very easily and it used in torches.  At Whitsuntide it was customary for Russian maidens to hang wreaths on the Birches and for the farmers to plant birch branches for them as a green symbol of the awakening of new life.’

3.  When this subject was mentioned at the Westminster Quaker Meeting House, London, on 2 October 2017, during a discussion of the Pentecost story, Redwood Fryxell remarked that the use of birch twigs in Germany must be ‘local’, because he had lots of Lutheran ancestors in Scandinavia, but he had never heard of it.

4.  Anna Lewington in her Birch (Reaktion Books, 2018) quotes James Frazer’s Golden Bough, first published in 1890, in which he states that all over Russia: ‘every village and every town is turned, a little before Whitsunday, into a sort of garden.  Everywhere along the streets the young birch-trees stand in rows, every house and every room is adorned with boughs, even the engines upon the railway are for the time decked with green leaves’.  Lewington also notes that ‘birch branches are commonly used as decoration by the Russian Orthodox Church today and carried by clergy during the celebration of Pentecost or Trinity Sunday as a symbol of fertility and the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit’.  Furthermore, ‘On Whitsunday (and at Easter) leafy birch branches are still gathered in parts of Romania for blessing in church’.

5.  In 1887 the rector of Leigh, Staffordshire, appealed in Notes & Queries for information:  ‘There is an old custom here, the meaning and origin of which I am anxious to discover.  On Whit Sunday a small sprig of birch is fixed at the end of every seat in the church.  This has been the custom within the memory of the oldest inhabitant’.

6.  At Pentecost 2022 St John the Baptist church, Frome, was decorated with beech, Fagus sylvatica, boughs, rather than birch [RV, pers. obs., 5 June 2022].

7.  In Poland Whitsun is known as ‘Green Feast’ when people decorate their houses with birch mainly and Acorus calamus [Garratt Park, Earlsfield, London, October 2022].

Images:  upper, St John’s church, Frome, Whitsun 2015; middle,  Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial church, Berlin, Whitsun 1953; lower, postcard, ‘St John Baptist, Frome -Whitsuntide’, unused and undated (photograph taken by Aldhelm Samuel Ashby (1882-1958), who ran a ‘photographic business’ in Bath Street, from c.1921-43).

Updated 22 October 2022.

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