The Hawthorn Fairy by Cicely Mary Barker
The Hawthorn tree rules from May 13th to June 9th on the “Celtic” tree calendar, which happens to correspond with when the hawthorn tree flowers. Because the hawthorn blooms in May its branches and blossoms were traditionally used to decorate homes in the UK to celebrate May Day, or Beltaine in Scottish Gaelic, and it is said that the original May Poles were made from hawthorn. It was also customary to tie a ribbon or shred of personal clothing to the branches of a hawthorn on May Eve in the hopes that a wish would be granted. Some say the wish is granted by the fairies who reside in the tree, others say it will be granted when the fabric either disintegrates or falls off. The hawthorn’s spirits were again honored at the end of the day when left over food from May Eve dinner were left under the tree as offerings.
Through the mosses bare,
They have planted thorn-trees
For pleasure here and there.
If any man so daring
As dig them up in spite,
He shall find their sharpest thorns
In his bed at night. – “The Fairies”, W. Allingham (1850)
The fae were strongly connected to the hawthorn tree. Hawthorn is the thorn referenced in the Celtic Fairy Triad, Oak, Ash, and Thorn. The three are considered to be gateways to the otherwold, or faerie in the Celtic tradition, however, the hawthorn tree is the most sacred of the three. A lone hawthorn in a field was called a fairy tree and to cut down or even take from a fairy tree with out first asking permission from the fae living in it would bring bad luck to the person who brought harm to the tree. Furthermore, to sit beneath a fairy tree when the veil between the two worlds is thinnest was to risk being taken by the fae into the faerie.
It just so happens that the veil is thinnest on Beltaine, when the tree blossoms, and Samhain, when the haws are ripe. It is also interesting to note that on Beltaine we celebrate the coming together of the feminine and masculine, the great rite, and dance the may pole. June is traditionally the marriage month and also when the hawthorn blossoms begin to fall from its branches. In ancient Greece wedding couples wore crowns made of hawthorn blossoms and Hymen, the Greek goddess of marriage, carried a torch made of hawthorn. The Roman goddess Cardea not only was associated with the hawthorn, but also marriage and childbirth and her festival was celebrated in May. Romans would place hawthorn leaves in the cradles of newborn children in hopes that Cardea would protect them. The scent of the hawthorn blossom includes trimethylamine, which is also released by the body during both sex and death. On Samhain we honor our dead, loved ones who have passed beyond the veil and it is said that haws will not fully ripen until the witches have flown over on Samhain. Medicinally, the hawthorn aids the heart, metaphysically, it is celebrated when our hearts are the most full.
Mark the fair blooming of the Hawthorn tree
who finely clothed in a robe of white
fills full the wanton eye with May’s delight. – Chaucer
In the beginning the hawthorn tree was considered to have highly protective powers. This most likely stemmed not only from the use of hawthorn as hedges, protecting homes and land from neighboring cattle and robbers, but also from the thick thorns that grow on young hawthorn stems. Children were no strangers to the saying, “Beware of an oak, it draws the stroke. Take care of the ash, it courts the crash. Creep under the thorn, it will save you from harm.” The rhyme tells where to find shelter if caught in a thunderstorm, warning to avoid oak and ash trees and to find shelter under the hawthorn. Trees were planted near homes to protect against evil spirits. Branches were even hung in the rafters to keep ghosts from dwelling there.
There was also once a tradition of hanging a “globe” of sorts made from hawthorn twigs, called a bush, in the kitchen on New Year’s with the hope of bringing good luck and protection into the home throughout the coming year. The previous year’s bush would be burned during the New Year’s celebrations and the ashes would be spread through the fields to bring forth a promising harvest.
However, with the spread and growth of Christianity, the hawthorn began to lose it’s protective lore. By the 1800’s the belief that to bring a hawthorn branch into the home would bring death and misfortune along with it was well established. This change in lore was in part due to the belief that the crown of thorns placed on Jesus’ head upon his death was made of hawthorn. It was further exacerbated by the fact that, when cut, hawthorn branches release a smell that is similar to death, which we know now is due to the trimethylamine. During the Great Plague of London in the 1600’s, it was recorded by Francis Bacon that the smell that came with the plague was the same as the smell that came from the hawthorn. It’s not a huge leap to assume that these bits of lore were the beginning stages in the turn of the hawthorn’s image from love to death.
Because of this, the hawthorn is now seen by those who follow the modern “Celtic” astrology to be a sign of opposition. A celebration of both life and death, light and darkness, protection and misfortune.
A few final bits of lore:
For more information on the Hawthorn Tree check out my post “The Hawthorn Tree“
A Dictionary of Superstitions, Oxford: Ed. Iona Opie & Moira Tatem
Dictionary of Superstitions, Cassell. Ed. David Pickering
“Hawthorn”, The Goddess Tree
“Olwen of the White Track; The Hawthorn Tree”, Suzi Crockford
“Hawthorn”, Mandy Haggith