Ballaugh Church on the Isle of Man must be the oldest still in use, after Kirk Maughold. Among its hoary tombstones is one ornamented with carvings of unchristian tramman leaves (elder leaves), a reminder of the obsolete custom of burying a few of these leaves with a corpse, especially a child’s in later times, “to keep off the fairies” during the hazardous interval which precedes the Day of Judgment.
This, like so many other superstitious practices, contained an element of inconsistency, for on the Isle of Man the fairies lived in tramman trees and were not likely to be afraid of its leaves. But we must not expect a superstition in its modern and decayed state to be governed by logically reasoned motives.
Many such observances were so inveterately rooted in the common life that they came at last to be performed as matters of routine verging upon the instinctive, with little understanding or questioning of their import, though reasons might be assigned to replace forgotten ones. Whatever may have been the radical significance of the elder tree to our fore-fathers or to the race from whom they learned it, it has branched out into various allied matters relating to death, to preservation from it by the cure of disease, to the grave, the Underworld, the family ancestors, and the fairies.
Celtic-speaking nations have shown less regard for the tree than some of their brethren; though it entered a little into their cures, Irish fairies were all for the whitethorn. But Puschkait, the ancient Lithuanian God of the Lower World, was understood to dwell beneath the elder, and in the shadow of it at evening twilight, the country people left their propitiatory offerings of bread and ale.
In North Staffordshire he was “the Owd Lad” who was liable to appear when elder wood was burnt. In Denmark his place was filled by the Elder-mother and her brood of little sprites; once, because a child was laid in a cradle made of elder-wood she gave it no peace until it was taken out.
In the Danish island of Zealand there grew an elder in a farmyard which often took a walk round the yard at twilight, and peeped in through the window at the children when they were alone.
A Gypsy charm cited by Leland commands the pain to pass from the eyes, which are first bandaged with elder-bark, down through the body to the feet, from then into the earth, and thence into death.
In Bohemia the growth of an elder twig planted on a grave was a sign that the soul was happy in its life beyond; the old Jewish cemetery at Prague was full of elders. Even in Somerset and other parts of England until lately it was thought unlucky to burn elder-wood in the house.
On the Isle of Man the elder is, together with the rowan and the thorn, the most significant of trees. It protects the house and its vicinity because it is inhabited or frequented by the kind of fairies who were formerly understood (there seems reason to believe) to be the souls of the ancestors; “the Good People from the sunset land,” as a Manx woman calls them.
They live in the tramman, not like birds among its branches, though that is where, and sometimes how, they show themselves, but inside its hollow stems, as though they were drawn up through its roots from the earth itself. So, when a soul was dispatched to join its buried kindred, a handful of the leaves (preferably, no doubt, gathered from the house-tree) was laid by its mortal framework with a vague proprietary sentiment, to help its identification in the other world and its consolidation with the collective body of those who awaited it.
This I imagine to have been the earlier feeling about the custom; for it may be supposed that if the fairies, though feared, had been deemed utterly alien and inimical to the living, the practice would not have arisen in the Isle of Man of planting a tramman against the house wall.
(source: A Manx Scrapbook by WW Gill, 1929; photo http://bit.ly/1uPzV61)