It fell about the Martinmas,The birch was associated with the dead. The next verse talks about its significance:
When nights are lang and mirk,
The carline wife’s three sons came hame,
And their hats were o’ the birk.
It neither grew in syke nor ditch,The woman is thrilled to have her sons returned to her, but of course, they cannot stay. But what has St. Martin’s Day (November 11) got to do with it? Well, in a sense, everything.
Nor yet in ony sheugh;
But at the gates o’ Paradise
That birk grew fair eneugh.
Our Hallowe’en is, of course, the night before All Saints’ Day (November 1): originally, All Hallows’ Eve. October 31 is also the traditional quarter-day celebration of the Celtic Samhain (pronounced sao-wen), a night when the barrier between the world of the living and the world of the dead is low and penetrable, and there can be traffic back and forth. Such traffic can be welcomed, of course – or feared – but is always a thing fraught with danger. The uncanny is only to be expected. The Christian celebration of the saints (and, next day, All the Faithful Departed – All Souls’ Day) was deliberately planted athwart the pagan holy day to ease Christian fears of what unsanctified spirits might do.
Meanwhile, in the early Middle Ages, the penitential season of Advent was longer than it is now. It started, in fact, on St. Martin’s Day and lasted seven weeks. Later on, it was linked to St. Andrew’s Day (November 30) and shortened to four weeks. But people with long memories (folk memory, not personal memory) still associated St. Martin’s Day with a focus upon preparing for the Day of Judgment.
And then, in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII updated the calendar, which had gotten out of synch with the solar year. It was a problem of long standing, and only the Pope had the international standing to fix it; unfortunately, the Protestant Reformation (not to mention, the Great Schism of 1054) meant that much of Europe ignored it for another two hundred years. (This is why George Washington has two birthdays, as we learn in school.) The calendar year had become ten days too long, so Pope Gregory decreed that Thursday, October 4, 1582, would be followed by Friday, October 15, 1582. All over Europe, Catholics were horrified that the Pope had taken ten days from their lives (as they saw it). Well, of course, he had done no such thing. He had just renumbered the days to fix the anomaly. But the unease over his action lingered. England (and Scotland) only adopted the New Style (as they called it) in September, 1752.
Now, “The Wife of Usher’s Well” is commonly dated to the 17th Century (the 1600s). Though it was written in England (Norfolk or the Scots Border, take your pick), it reflects the Continental usage of time-reckoning. For when the Pope dropped ten days from the calendar in early October, 1582, that meant that when the people were officially celebrating St. Martin’s Day (November 11), it was “really” All Saints’ Day (November 1), since even the Pope couldn’t really take ten days away from everybody. St. Martin’s Day came to be called Old Hallowe’en and Old Hallowmas Eve.
The point of this – in the ballad – is that the three sons came home at Martinmas – Old Hallowe’en, when the boundary between this world and the next is crossable, if only for a night. The three sons sneak out of heaven to ease their mother’s heart, but as they go back, one of them bids farewell to more than his mother:
’Fare ye weel, my mother dear!It’s a song that deserves to be remembered, and a perfect song for this season.
Fareweel to barn and byre!
And fare ye weel, the bonny lass
That kindles my mother’s fire!’