A Christmas Tree: Guest Blog by Nick Rhodehamel

Matthew’s Gospel tells us that it was Joseph of Arimathea who requested of Pilate and was given the body of Jesus after the crucifixion. In life, Joseph was a follower of Jesus and a rich man. After receiving Jesus’ body, he buried it in a tomb that had been carved into stone and that he had intended for himself.

In legend, the story goes, Saint Philip the Apostle sent Joseph to Britain to establish Christianity there. When Joseph made his way to Britain, he arrived in southwest England in Somerset near present-day Glastonbury. Some accounts have Joseph bringing with him the chalice used at the last supper (the Holy Grail)—these are the foundations of Arthurian romance—and some have him bearing a vial of Jesus’ blood (and/or sweat). But all the stories include his walking staff. Joseph prayed for a sign that would convince the Britons of the veracity of his message. Upon disembarking, he thrust his staff into the earth, and miraculously it sprouted and grew to become what is now called the Glastonbury Thorn. Under mild winter conditions such as those in Somerset, the Glastonbury Thorn breaks bud and flowers in early winter and then again in spring. It has traditionally represented Christmas.

The Glastonbury Thorn is in the news now because recently it was hacked down by persons unknown. This is not the first time this has happened during the last 2000 years either, if indeed the tree has existed that long. During the English Civil War (1642–1651), it was clear that it was the forces of Oliver Cromwell who cut it down and burned it. Cromwell was a strict Puritan and considered the Thorn a “relic of superstition” and a symbol of Roman Catholicism. It thus served his purposes to destroy it, and while he certainly had no fellow feeling for royals (as is evident from the treatment that Charles I received), he was continuing the work of Henry VIII who had completed the destruction of the abbey where the Thorn then grew. Henry hanged the monks to boot. In any case, whether or not sprigs of the Glastonbury Thorn will grace the Royal table on Christmas Day this year, as traditionally they have for some 400 years, I don’t know.

The Glastonbury Thorn is a form of common or singleseed hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna). This is the primary hawthorn species in the British Isles and is found throughout Europe, northwest Africa, and western Asia. It’s long been important to wildlife and humans in Europe. The hedges that are so prominent and that border fields in England and Ireland are largely composed of singleseed hawthorn; these provide nesting sites for birds and shelter for many small mammals as well as food for these creatures, and the flowers are visited by nectar-feeding insects, butterflies in particular. For several thousand years, because of its thorns and dense growth, people grew hawthorn in virtually impenetrable hedges to keep livestock in and enemies out. The hard, fine-grained wood is handsome and durable and has been used to make objects such as combs. Charcoal made from hawthorn burns at a high temperature and for generations melted metal. There are also various herbal medicine preparations made from hawthorn.

Glastonbury Thorn itself is designated as C. monogyna cultivar Biflora because of its unusual habit of flowering in winter as well as spring. Hawthorn in general is a long-lived plant, but it’s unlikely to live as long as the 2000-year-old tree cited in the recent newspaper accounts (250 years is reasonable, though). The first reference to the Glastonbury Thorn is in the early16th century poem Lyfe of Joseph of Arimathea; it may well have originated only a generation or two before that. What accounts for the unique winter-flowering characteristic is unclear, but that trait is not maintained in trees grown from Glastonbury Thorn seed. It is only expressed by Glastonbury Thorn cuttings or buds grafted to rootstock. Human intervention did not determine Glastonbury Thorn, but human intervention is required to preserve it.

The British may have lost a national treasure, but that was long ago. In all likelihood, the tree destroyed by Cromwell’s troops was the original one; the recently vandalized one was certainly a clone of that. Since at least the early part of the 18th century, Glastonbury Thorn has been extensively reproduced by means of cuttings and buds (just as is done to maintain desired traits in apple cultivars), and it has been distributed worldwide. Glastonbury Thorn is not in imminent danger of extinction; there are plenty of examples of it, and presumably, apart from the rootstock, they are all identical to the original. It can even be found for sale on internet nursery sites, both in Europe and the USA.

It’s my guess that the tradition will continue. The Queen will get her sprigs of Glastonbury Thorn for Christmas Day. They will not come from the tree at Glastonbury clearly, but did they always anyway?

This entry was posted on Tuesday, December 21st, 2010 at 1:30 pm and is filed under Original Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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8 Responses to “A Christmas Tree: Guest Blog by Nick Rhodehamel”

  1. Sally Tantau said:

    Just a thank you for the writings you give to us through your emails. I continually learn from them. So Merry Christmas from a fan!
    Just a little aside: My husband’s great grandfather was Charles Copeland Morse of the Ferry Morse Seed Company. He spent time with Mr Burpee as I’m sure all seed men did back in the early 20th century. When your emails arrive, I always feel a bit of a connection.

    • Nick said:

      Dear Sally,

      Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you. Thank you for your interest. If you’re located in the area, by all means, come to the Burpee Open Houses and see Fordhook Farm where you great grandfather-in-law may have visited Mr. Burpee. The dates will be posted on the website when they’re finalized.

  2. mSamuelle said:

    I felt so connected myself everytime there’s a message what Jesus was all about. I am at the point of my walk where I simply giggle or get filled with “JOY” …. when Jesus simply says, “I love U, __________.” God knows my name. Thank for your article about Joseph A.. I am an undergrad in Special Edu/minor in Leadership & Civic Engagement here in the NWest. I found it so meaningful to assist the new citizens of our land – the refugee. This is my cause & I be working on a GRE Teacher’s Licensure soon as to help teach the refugee Pre-Literacy. Keep writing about the LORd and I be clipping your work in my Daily Journal. So thankful.

    • Nick said:

      Dear mSamuelle,

      Thanks for visiting the site and reading the blog. Merry Christmas and keep coming back.

  3. William Stick-in-the-Clay said:

    Thank you, Nicholas, for linking the the trees of land with trees of belief . . . and thank you, too, for supplying us with the various stories that have passed down from the legendary Arthurians to my own Cromwellian ancestors, sticklers, to be sure–or anti-stickers, to be exact–who did their best to prune the faith of its largely Roman (and saturnalian)canopies.

    • Nick said:

      Dear William,

      Thank you for your expansive reading of the piece. My sticklarian English ancestors (that I’m aware of) had bugged out for less challenged real estate by the time Cromwell began his pruning.

  4. Wanda H. said:

    Wish I had a Glastonbury Thorn cutting for my holiday table. Thank you for this most interesting piece of history.

    • Nick said:

      Dear Wanda,

      You’re quite welcome. Thank you for reading.

      Just for your interest, Crataegus monogyna is naturalized to much of North America, and cultivar Biflora is available, so it would be possible to grow it here. My understanding, though, in terms of horticultural value, is that there are much better North American Crataegus species and cultivars.

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