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.


Thorny times

It’s been one hell of a year for a lot of people, so it’s not surprising that such things as historical anniversaries have gone widely unmarked. Who knew, for instance, that June 2020 was the five hundredth anniversary of the Field of the Cloth of Gold, Henry VIII’s magnificent blingfest, held on the frontier of his empire (just outside Calais) to impress his French neighbour? 1520 was also the year in which the Glastonbury Thorn finally made it into print, and I don’t think that these two events were unconnected. The Abbot of Glastonbury was keen to impress his nationalistic monarch with evidence of why his establishment was a blessing to ‘great brytayn fortunate’, and the winter-flowering thorn tree was, literally, a godsend. It was a miracle that proved Glastonbury to be ‘the holyest erth of england’, ‘a principall place chosen of Christ moost speciall’.

The miraculous tree made its mark. When Thomas Cromwell’s commissioners came to appraise its wealth, they sent a sample of its blossom to their boss, but it didn’t do the abbey any good. In 1539 the monastery was dissolved and its abbot hanged, drawn and quartered. But the thorn itself survived, and became the stuff that myth is made from. Stories grow on this famous tree like fruit, and wrap around it like creepers. It’s a shape-shifter. It’s been Catholic, Protestant, Pagan, universal. It’s succoured royalty, loyalty, defiance and subversion. It’s been condemned as patriarchal and revered as a feminine spirit. It’s been harnessed by imperialists and peacemakers and nationalists and universalists. It’s stood for better times and better days. For Christmas cheer and better nature, for all trees and all nature, for peace and for hope.

And now, in 2020, a mere half-millennium since its first appearance in print, the Thorn has got its own book at last. The fruit of fifteen years of research, Glastonbury Holy Thorn: Story of a Legend combines erudition and humour with a sly but sincere commentary on five centuries of England’s quest for a soul.

(left) Richard Pynson, 1520 (right) Green & Pleasant Publishing, 2020

Glastonbury Holy Thorn: Story of a Legend is available in hardback for the ludicrously low price of £12.99, for which you get 156 well-illustrated pages, plus a further sixteen pages in full colour. Available from the publisher postage free within the UK, and at discounted rates to more far-flung destinations:

Sample chapter here, to whet your appetite:

Comments so far, from the great and the good:

“surely the definitive work on its beloved and important subject” (Ronald Hutton, Professor of History, University of Bristol)

“By steering a route between cold academic analysis and the more way-out beliefs which flourish in Glastonbury, Stout has created a valuable account of the Thorn” (Roy Vickery, author of Plant Lore)

and there’s a lovely review on Google Books:

“Of the Glastonbury legends, the story of Joseph of Arimathea bringing the Holy Grail to Avalon is the headline act, the stuff of blockbuster quest narratives. But Adam Stout’s excellent book focuses on another legend – the one in which Joseph’s hawthorn staff miraculously springs to life when planted in Somerset soil, blossoming ever-after on Christmas Day – and it proves every bit as fascinating. Stout traces the remarkable ways in which, for over 500 years, various folk have bought into or challenged the thorn legend, for reasons both sacred and secular. It’s a local history that resonates nationally and internationally, with the thorn serving as a kind of MacGuffin that drives the whole weird and wonderful plot. This is an impeccably researched, beautifully produced and highly readable book, leavened throughout with warmth and wit. It’s clearly a labour of love. Stout calls his work ‘the biography of a symbol’ and the cumulative effect is oddly moving as we see the plucky, beleaguered thorn (and its offshoots) weather historical storms – wars, schisms, cultural revolutions – right up to the modern era, where it continues to attract both devotion and desecration. Anyone interested in the interplay of legend and history will be captivated by this book.”