Photo credit: Warrington Museum & Art Gallery
‘Bawming the Thorn’ is a lovely traditional ceremony held at Appleton each year. The term ‘bawming’ comes from the old English word ‘bawm’ which means to adorn or anoint. The ‘thorn’ is a whitethorn tree, a variety of hawthorn. The ceremony has been through many forms in its centuries of existence but today’s version is largely based on the 19th century event where the village’s children decorated the tree with flowers and ribbons and danced around it. They would then take part in a variety of games and, of course, a feast.
The tradition fell out of fashion for a while, having degenerated from a lovely ritual into a rowdy affair, but was resurrected in the 1970s by the Primary School’s headmaster, Bob Jones. In older days the ceremony was always held on June 29th, St. Peter’s day, but now, for the sake of convenience, it happens on the Saturday closest to Midsummer’s Day. Modern festivities include a climbing wall, a fairground and stalls selling everything from fudge to make-up and greetings cards.
The actual ceremony of Bawming the Thorn, however, has much older roots. The hawthorn tree is said to be a descendant of the Holy Thorn of Glastonbury. The original Holy Thorn is said to have been brought to Glastonbury by Joseph of Arimathea, the man who arranged for Jesus’ burial. He planted his staff in the ground on Wearyall Hill, where it took root and grew into a thorn tree. Cuttings from the tree were taken to many places in the British Isles. The original Appleton thorn was brought by local crusader knight Adam de Dutton, in 1178.
Today’s tree is a replacement but is still revered, protected by railings in its special place near the church. Its sacred nature comes from the belief that Jesus’ crown of thorns was made from this very tree. It was however, regarded as very unlucky to bring blossom from this tree into the house, because to do so would be inviting death to follow. Indeed, the blossom was said to have the smell of death about it. In fact, it has been discovered that the chemical trimethylamine, contained in the scent of the blossom, is also one of the chemicals emitted by a body after death so this old belief does have a basis in fact.
On a cheerier note, a long-standing Cheshire May Day custom was to hang a bunch of May blossom outside one’s sweetheart’s house. It was also considered entirely appropriate for brides to wear May blossom in their hair. This may well derive from the ancient Celtic belief that hawthorn signifies love and protection. The hawthorn was regarded as a sacred tree long before Christianity came to these shores.
Hawthorn trees are traditionally home to fairies, who act as their guardians. The 13th century poet and mystic Thomas the Rhymer wrote that the fairy Queen had appeared to him at a hawthorn tree and took him into her own fairyland, where he spent a short time – or so he thought. When he emerged, he found that seven whole years had passed. Those who believed in fairies would not allow a hawthorn tree to be destroyed, for fear of retribution.
Taking all this magic into account, the ceremony of Bawming the Thorn suddenly takes on new significance. A group of children from the local school process to the Appleton Thorn, which has already been dressed with red ribbons. The children carry flowers and wear matching red and white outfits, with two of them taking on the roles of Sir Adam de Dutton and his page. Once they are all gathered at the tree, Sir Adam pronounces, “I, Adam de Dutton, raise this thorn, on this morn in Appleton Thorn.” The rest of the children then reverently lay their flowers at the base of the tree. A choir, dressed in black and red, now starts to sing the traditional bawming song and the children dance, in pairs, around the tree. The song, written by Mr. Egerton-Warburton, is sung to the tune of ‘Bonnie Dundee’.
The Maypole in spring merry maidens adorn, Our midsummer May-Day means Bawming the Thorn. On her garlanded throne sits the May Queen alone, Here each Appleton lad has a Queen of his own.
(Chorus) Up with fresh garlands this Midsummer morn, Up with red ribbons on Appleton Thorn. Come lasses and lads to the Thorn Tree today To Bawm it and shout as ye Bawm it, Hooray!
The oak in its strength is the pride of the wood, The birch bears a twig that made naughty boys good, But there grows not a tree which in splendour can vie With our thorn tree when Bawmed in the month of July.
Kissing under the rose is when nobody sees, You may under the mistletoe kiss when you please; But no kiss can be sweet as that stolen one be Which is snatched from a sweetheart when Bawming the Tree.
Ye Appleton Lads I can promise you this; When her lips you have pressed with a true lover’s kiss, Wooed her and won her and made her your bride, Thenceforth shall she ne’er be a thorn in your side.
So long as this Thorn Tree o’ershadows the ground, May sweethearts to Bawm it in plenty be found. And a thousand years hence when tis gone and is dead, May there stand here a Thorn to be Bawmed in its stead.
The author of this song was Rowland Egerton-Warburton (1804–1891) of Arley Hall. He also commissioned the painting in the image illustrating this article, in 1880.
Another, earlier song, was written by Dr Egerton Leigh (1702 – 1760) an Anglican clergyman based at High Legh and author of many ballads based on local legends.
(Chorus) Bawm the old Thorn, At peep of dawn, This happy morn, Bawm the Thorn.
Hasten lads and lassies all, Here together neighbours call; Let the trumpet’s brazen tongue Summon all, both old and young.
Years, years ago thy shade hath seen Our grand-dames dancing on the green. Hath seen our sires as wee things play And while the summer hours away.
Branches of thy fragrant May, By love-sick swain, at break of day Have oft been hung at maiden’s door, With Nature’s gems bespangled o’er.
Here vows of love have oft been made By fond youth whispering in thy shade; Oft hath the evening breeze I wiss Mixed with the murmur of a kiss.
Thy ruby stores (to childhood’s eye So beautiful), when winter’s nigh, Tempt startled field-fares to thy tree. By hunger tamed, to feast on thee.
Slowly beneath thy boughs hath past When earth to earth returns at last As generations melt away. The weeping funeral array.
But to-day away with sorrow. Nought shall grieve us till tomorrow: With dance and feast and village lay We’ll celebrate our bawming day.
Clip the hawthorn, scatter flowers, Rob for this the brightest bowers; Urge on the dance and wassail – say We will, we will be mad today.
Finally, let’s not forget the traditional home of merriment, the local pub, the Thorn Inn, which was also commemorated in verse…
As long as you’re sober you’re safe at the Thorn, But if drunk overnight it will prick you next morn. May the lord of the manor who planted it thrive, May the wenches who bawm it all speedily wive; May the old ‘neath its shadow in comfort repose, And Appleton flourish as long as it grows.