Wikipedia says St Helen’s Day — Helena, mother of Constantine I — is honoured in the Church of England on 21st May but in the Episcopal Church on 22nd May1‘Helena, Mother of Constantine I’, Wikipedia (Wikimedia Foundation) <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helena,_mother_of_Constantine_I#Sainthood> [accessed 20 May 2023]. The Rev. R.C. Atkinson, however, suggests it falls on the 2nd May2Atkinson, Rev. J. C. “A Glossary of the Cleveland Dialect.” Page 417. JOHN RUSSELL SMITH,SOHO SQUARE. 1868..
So who’s right? Yer pays yer money …
It matters if you wish to use the Rowan-tree, or Witch Wood, “as a prophylactic against witches and their power, elves, and all that company.”
According to the Reverend, boughs must be cut on St Helen’s Day. So the day matters. But maybe he has been overruled by a higher authority. After all, he was writing 155 years ago.
Now the Reverend was quite detailed in the meticulous method his Cleveland parishioners would gather rowan for its powers to be effectual3Atkinson, Rev. J. C. “Forty years in a moorland parish; reminiscences and researches in Danby in Cleveland.” Page 99. 1891.:
- it must be cut from a tree which the cutter had never seen before — well, I didn’t know about this little rowan bonsai tree growing on an old gate post in Baysdale before;
- but not only that, he must have had no previous knowledge or suspicion of the very existence of the tree — yes, I can honestly say I had no idea this sapling existed;
- “once the requisite bough or boughs having been severed and secured, they must be carried home by any way save that by which the obtainer of them had gone forth on his quest” — well, we’re on a circular walk so that’s ok, but we’re going to drive back the same way — but on the different side of the road!
- and the boughs “must be cut with a household knife” — oh dear, that’s a definite failure. I never thought to bring the butter knife.
I would have had to have cut several branches; “one for the upper sill of the house-door, one for the corresponding position as to stable, cow-byre, and the other domiciles of the various stock, one for personal use, one for the head of her bed, one for the house-place, etc. etc.” Maybe my little bonsai tree wouldn’t have been not big enough.
This belief in the power of the Rowan tree to ward off evil is found throughout Britain and Scandinavia. A rowan-tree which is found growing upon lofty old walls or on stumps of other trees (or on an old gate post?) is supposed to be particularly potent, and carrying a piece around with you was supposed to bring good fortune and “a prophylactic against Witching.”
- 1‘Helena, Mother of Constantine I’, Wikipedia (Wikimedia Foundation) <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helena,_mother_of_Constantine_I#Sainthood> [accessed 20 May 2023]
- 2Atkinson, Rev. J. C. “A Glossary of the Cleveland Dialect.” Page 417. JOHN RUSSELL SMITH,SOHO SQUARE. 1868.
- 3Atkinson, Rev. J. C. “Forty years in a moorland parish; reminiscences and researches in Danby in Cleveland.” Page 99. 1891.