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The Golden Bough
James George Frazer
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Chapter 10. Relics of Tree Worship in Modern Europe
FROM THE FOREGOING review of the beneficent qualities commonly ascribed to tree-
spirits, it is easy to understand why customs like the May-tree or May-pole have
prevailed so widely and figured so prominently in the popular festivals of European
peasants. In spring or early summer or even on Midsummer Day, it was and still is in
many parts of Europe the custom to go out to the woods, cut down a tree and bring it into
the village, where it is set up amid general rejoicings; or the people cut branches in the
woods, and fasten them on every house. The intention of these customs is to bring home
to the village, and to each house, the blessings which the tree-spirit has in its power to
bestow. Hence the custom in some places of planting a May-tree before every house, or
of carrying the village May-tree from door to door, that every household may receive its
share of the blessing. Out of the mass of evidence on this subject a few examples may be
Sir Henry Piers, in his Description of Westmeath, writing in 1682 says: On May-eve,
every family sets up before their door a green bush, strewed over with yellow flowers,
which the meadows yield plentifully. In countries where timber is plentiful, they erect tall
slender trees, which stand high, and they continue almost the whole year; so as a stranger
would go nigh to imagine that they were all signs of ale-sellers, and that all houses were
ale-houses. In Northamptonshire a young tree ten or twelve feet high used to be planted
before each house on May Day so as to appear growing; flowers were thrown over it and
strewn about the door. Among ancient customs still retained by the Cornish, may be
reckoned that of decking their doors and porches on the first of May with green boughs of
sycamore and hawthorn, and of planting trees, or rather stumps of trees, before their
houses. In the north of England it was formerly the custom for young people to rise a
little after midnight on the morning of the first of May, and go out with music and the
blowing of horns into the woods, where they broke branches and adorned them with
nosegays and crowns of flowers. This done, they returned about sunrise and fastened the
flower-decked branches over the doors and windows of their houses. At Abingdon in
Berkshire young people formerly went about in groups on May morning, singing a carol
of which the following are two of the verses:
We've been rambling all the night,
And sometime of this day;
And now returning back again,
We bring a garland gay.
A garland gay we bring you here;
And at your door we stand;
It is a sprout well budded out,
The work of our Lord's hand.
At the towns of Saffron Walden and Debden in Essex on the first of May little girls go
about in parties from door to door singing a song almost identical with the above and
carrying garlands; a doll dressed in white is usually placed in the middle of each garland.