Christmas Decorations

"Against the feast of Christmas every man's house, as also the parish churches, were decked with holm, ivy, bays and whatever the season of the year afforded to be green", Stow reported in 1598. Not only the houses and churches, but "the conduits and standards in the streets were likewise". So the custom was well-established in the 16th century, but it owes its origins to practices that are a great deal older. The use of HOLLY, always mentioned first in any account of Christmas decorations, is apparently a survival of an ancient Roman custom occurring during the Saturnalia, for holly was dedicated to Saturn. While the Romans were celebrating the feast, they decked the outside of their houses with sprays of holly; at the same time the early Christians were quietly celebrating the birth of Christ, and to avoid detection, they outwardly followed the custom (Napier). Since then, holly has become almost the embodiment of Christmas, actually called Christmas in many places, or, as in Suffolk, Christmas-tree, and Prickly Christmas in Cornwall (Grigson). In the Scandinavian countries it is known as Christ-thorn (Hadfield & Hadfield). All the evergreens used were called collectively the Christmas in East Anglia (Forby).

Parson Woodforde recorded in his diary for 24 December 1788 that "this being Christmas Eve I had my Parlour Windows dressed of as usual with Hulver-boughs well seeded with red Berries, and likewise in Kitchen". He had got the timing right, for it is bad luck to take holly into the house before Christmas Eve (or hawthorn, blackthorn or gorse at any time, possibly because of the connection with the Crown of Thorns) (Palmer). Only a man could bring it in (Baker. 1974) (for holly is a male emblem), and it could not remain in the house after 6 January. If the rules were not kept, it was considered in Oxfordshire, "you will have the devil in the house", or, from Cardiganshire, and referring to the MISTLETOE, "a ghost will sit on every bough" (Winstanley & Rose). Wherever else it was put, and in America it was bad luck to put them upstairs (Whitley & Bullock), it was always the custom to put a spray of berried holly in the window (Crippen), possibly as a visible protection, for houses were hung with holly in the Highlands to keep mischievous fairies away (McNeill. Vol 3). In Wiltshire, they say that the holly and bay garland hung outside the front door at Christmas is to keep the witches outside. They have to stay and count the holly berries - indefinitely, for witches can only count to four, and then have to start again (Wiltshire).

In Derbyshire, it was thought unlucky not to have both holly and MISTLETOE in the house at Christmas; they should be taken in together, and part of the holly had to be of the smooth, and the remainder of the prickly kind (Wright). At Burford, in Shropshire, only "free", or smooth, holly is used to decorate houses (Burne. 1883). IVY, though used in its own right, was sometimes made to simulate holly, by having its berries reddened with ruddle left over from sheep marking (Baker. 1974). But the two plants usually accompanied each other, and an old carol gives the impression that it was once the custom to set up a long pole decorated with holly and ivy, after the fashion of a maypole (Friend). Ivy was the natural companion of holly. And holly is the male emblem, so ivy is the female. Aubrey mentions an Oxfordshire custom, or at least a custom kept at Launton in that county - "it is the custom for the Maid Servant to ask the Man for Ivy to dress the House, and if the Man denies or neglects to fetch in Ivy, the maid steals away a pair of his Breeches and nails them up to the gate in the yard or highway". So the man had to bring the ivy in, just as he had to with holly, but it was at the behest of the female, who was recognised by custom to be in control of her own plant. Not surprisngly, care had to be taken not to let ivy predominate in the decorations. It is far too unlucky a plant to risk, unlucky for men, no doubt (Sternberg). Just to emphasise the point, it used to be the custom for church ivy saved from the Christmas decorations to be fed to ewes, and it said to induce the conception of twin lambs (Baker. 1974).

Nowadays, mistletoe has taken the place of ivy as the female element, even though the berries contain the male essence. But, as with ivy elsewhere, Worcestershire farmers gave their Christmas mistletoe to the first cow to calve in the New Year (Baker. 1974). The mistletoe is still used as a kind of love token at Christmas. Girls are ritually kissed under the mistletoe. It was said that each time a girl was thus kissed she had to be given one of the berries, which implies that these Yule fertility ceremonies had a strictly limited life (Sandys), just as there was a strictly limited period in which the mistletoe could be cut. In the Worcestershire apple-growing areas, where mistletoe grows so well in the orchards, they say it is very unlucky to cut it at any time other than at midnight on Christmas Eve. Elsewhere a little more leeway was allowed, but

Christmas was the only time permitted (Drury. 1987). In Herefordshire, mistletoe was not allowed in the house till New Year's morning, halfway through the twelve days of Christmas (Briggs. 1974).

Not surprisingly, given its reputation, mistletoe was hung in houses (and it is unlucky not to have it at Christmas), but never, with a very few exceptions, in churches. The most notable exception was York Minster, to which the mistletoe was ceremonially carried on Christmas Eve, and laid on the high altar, after which a universal pardon was proclaimed at the four gates of the city - liberty for all as long as the branch lay on the altar (Hole. 1941). There are a few more exceptions in the Midlands, but it must have been used in Welsh churches, for it is recorded that a sprig of mistletoe that had been used in the Christmas church decorations would bring good luck for the coming year to whoever had it. Again, there was a belief that if a girl put a sprig taken from the church under her pillow, she would dream of her future husband (Trevelyan).

Sometimes, one finds that mistletoe used in house decoration was kept an abnormally long time. The Staffordshire custom was to keep it to burn under next year's Christmas pudding, or else to hang it round the neck as a witch repellent. The Devonshire custom was also to keep it till next Christmas. It would prevent the house being struck by lightning; or, as at Ottery St Mary, it would ensure that the house would never be without bread. In Herefordshire, scorched BLACKTHORN was mixed with mistletoe as a Christmas decoration to bring good luck (R L Brown).

The importance of the mistletoe is emphasised by default, as it were, for in those areas such as the Lincolnshire marshes, where it does not grow, a bunch of some other evergreen has been used, but it had the same functions and privileges as the real thing (Gutch and Peacock. JUNIPER serves in Italy (Elworthy. 1895), but then it has many protective uses in its own right, and in France branches of it serve as a Christmas tree, and presents are hung from it (Salle). ROSEMARY was used at Ripon in the 18th century. The choirboys brought baskets of red apples, in each of which a sprig of rosemary was stuck. One of these apples was offered to every member of the congregation for a small payment (Crippen). POINSETTIA has become in recent years an accepted Christmas emblem in America, and has spread to this country. Evidently it was considered acceptable before Dr Poinsett discovered it in 1828, for its Mexican name means Flower of the Holy Night.

YEW is an evergreen seldom if ever used in the decorations. In Suffolk, they said it was unlucky enough to bring the death of a member of the family within a year (Forby). The Christmas evergreens should never be hung in a bedroom (Gutch & Peacock), and this sanction really applies at any time to any flowers or greenery, and has a superstition all of its own. "Set" Christmas decorations appeared quite early, for Barnaschone mentions the "quaint devices" appearing in the windows of 18th century Tenby houses, and business places too. They were made up of evergreens, usually box, myrtle or holly. The most widespread of these "quaint devices" was the one known variously as the Kissing Bough, Kissing Bush, or, as in Worcestershire, Kissing Boss (L M Jones), usually hung from cottage ceilings. The simplest way to make one is to fix two iron hoops together at right angles, and then decorate it, but tradition usually demands something more elaborate. We read, for instance, of the hoops being "bent in the form of a crown" (Wright), while Laurence Whistler's description (quoted in Hadfield & Hadfield) required five equal circles of thickish wire, bound together so that one became the horizontal "equator", with the four others crossing at the "poles". Whatever the framework, it had to be covered with greenery, and decorated with apples and lighted candles. Often a bunch of mistletoe was fixed to the underside. In the Cleveland district the kissing-bush had "roses" cut from coloured paper, and was hung with apples and oranges. When the railways came, mistletoe was added. That is interesting, for obviously mistletoe was remembered, but had become unobtainable locally (Spence. 1949). Devonshire kissing boughs were much simpler affairs, for a small FURZE bush served, dipped in water and then powdered with flour, after which it was studded all over with holly berries (Wright).

The last question is what to do with the decorations after Christmas has passed. Generally speaking, the accepted dictum is "all your Christmas should be burnt on Twelfth Day morning" (Notes and Queries; 1853). It would be unlucky to throw them away carelessly with the other household rubbish; then the luck of the house went with them (Drury. 1987), or a death would occur before next Christmas (Opie & Tatem). But in eastern Yorkshire it was specifically said they should be thrown out to decay (Nicholson). In Lincolnshire, too, it was reckoned to be very bad luck to burn the evergreens (Gutch & Peacock), the exact opposite of most considered opinion. In Somerset, they said that if you did not burn them, they would turn into pixies and plague you for a year (Tongue). Perhaps, as Drury suggested, the injunction was against burning them indoors, as in Norfolk, where they must always be put on a fire outdoors (Randell), but Opie & Tatem quoted a woman in Redhill, Surrey, who always burned holly in the grate on Twelfth Night.

After the Christmas decorations came down, BOX replaced them from Candlemas to Easter, or more correctly, Candlemas Day to either Palm Sunday or Easter Eve (Dallimore). Herrick, Hesperides, notes the custom under Candlemas Day:

Down with the rosemary and bayes, Down with the mistletoe; In stead of holly now upraise The greener box for show; The holly hitherto did sway, Let box now domineer; Until the dancing Easter Day, Or Easter's Eve appear.

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