Merry Old Christmas

Brexit’s only half done, patriots. By all that’s right and decent today should be the Real Christmas Day, but we’re still saddled with a poxy foreign papist calendar because in 1751 the metropolitan elites stole eleven days from the allotted life-spans of decent God-fearing Englishmen and women. What did they do with those eleven days, those thieves of time? Who knows? They probably gave them to their mates and cronies, like they always do.

Back in the 1750s, amidst much mistrust and uncertainty, people looked to the Holy Thorn of Glastonbury for a bit of grounding. Everybody knew it flowered on Christmas Day. Would it obey the government, and flower on the new day, or stay true to tradition and flower on the old one? People flocked in their thousands to scions of the old tree to check up on it. And what did they find? Opinions differed, because – it has to be said – the Glastonbury Thorn never had been that predictable. Fake news abounded. A mischievous little pamphlet appeared in early 1753, claiming that the tree in ‘Glastonbury Field’ flowered that year on Old Christmas day as it was meant to, “to the great surprize of the Spectators”.

Rubbish, said the vicar, dismissing the story as ‘ridiculously stupid and egregiously false’, but by no means everyone was convinced, and in 1755 a seventy-year old Yorkshire pauper called John Jackson walked all the way to Glastonbury to find out. It was a madcap pilgrimage, and something about it rang so true with me that a few years back I decided to do it myself. Deep in the virtual catacombs, in one of those forgotten musty corners where cyberdust festoons the world-wide cobweb, lurks an account of my trek in the footsteps of this crusty old eccentric. I’ve had one random reader, who found the piece late one night and was so bowled over by it that he wrote to me there and then: “Best read I’ve had for years! Absolutely love your style. With the excitement I first had on reading Catcher in The Rye or Catch 22“. Thanks, I replied, as you would, but I never heard from him again. I think he was stoned. Anyway, give it a read sometime when you’ve got nothing better to do. I’d be glad of a bit of feedback, even if you don’t find it as catchy as he did.

People gradually adapted to the new calendar, but the custom of visiting offshoot Thorns on Old Christmas Eve never disappeared. In 1782 the thorn in Glastonbury Churchyard ‘was visited by a great number of the most ignorant and superstitious of the common people, according to custom’. Crowds could get quite rowdy, especially if the Tree didn’t do its duty. Stones were thrown at the owner of a Thorn near Crewkerne, eighteen miles from Glastonbury, when it failed to bloom on Old Christmas Day 1878; he pulled up the plant in disgust. But the one at Kingsthorne in Herefordshire obligingly blossomed for the BBC when an early outside broadcast unit turned up in 1950, and the crowd was self-consciously well behaved. Perhaps it was the cameras.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s