The customs of Christmas

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WHEN we tuck a piece of holly above a picture or hang up a bunch of mistletoe, we are carrying on a custom that is older than Christmas itself.

Bringing in evergreens at midwinter goes back beyond the earliest records into myth and legend. Any plant that kept its leaves, even when the land was locked in ice and snow, was a symbol of eternity and the hope of new life.

It was usual in pagan religions to use flowers and leaves in festive spaces, and because of this some early churchmen were against the practice. But in the seventh century Pope Gregory the Great came out in favour of it.

We know that English churches came to be hung with evergreens at Christmas because parish accounts from the late Middle Ages show payments for holly and ivy. Holly’s spiked leaves represented Jesus’ crown of thorns, and the red berries, His blood.

Records tell of suspended wooden frames covered in holly and stuck with candles, or holly bound in swags with broom or ivy. In the Tudor period, home decorations were of a similar type.

Keeping the festival of Christmas was illegal in England between 1645 and 1660, when bringing in a bunch of holly might attract suspicion.

Christmas greenery came back with the Restoration, and that’s when mistletoe began to come indoors.

Decorating with evergreens became so popular that by 1712 the situation in some churches was getting a little out of hand. Pulpits were so clustered about with holly, ivy and rosemary that “the congregation heard the Word out of a bush, like Moses”.

Bay, box, yew, broom and laurel were all used at Christmas, though holly was considered the most valuable.

People believed that holly was protective and brought good fortune, so it was planted close to houses to keep them from fire and other disaster.

Some holly wood in the threshold was a good idea too, to keep malign forces out.

NEW FASHIONS

IN THE late 18th century a new decoration appeared in farm kitchens, cottages, and servants’ quarters.

This was the kissing bush, usually made from two crossed hoops covered in leaves.

It was decorated with coloured paper, ribbons, apples, candles, and little dolls of Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus.

Some were huge, six feet across, and these usually took the shape of an upturned basin.

From the bottom of the kissing bush dangled a bunch of mistletoe.

The custom of kissing under the mistletoe is now around 200 years old, and it seems to be a uniquely British custom. It’s only possible so long as there are berries left, because one must be removed with each kiss.

Less well known is a custom reported from North Yorkshire in the 19th century.

When a girl had been kissed she would take a mistletoe berry and a leaf to her room, where she’d swallow the berry (best not to try this), prick her man’s initials onto the leaf, and sew it into her corset. This was supposed to keep him true.

While the kissing bush was found in worker’s homes, a new custom was gaining ground among the upper classes.

In 1848 the Illustrated London News published a picture of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their children gathered around a decorated fir tree at Windsor. This image helped the German custom to spread quickly among the wealthy.

This year we might be buying smaller trees, and not just because we’re hard up. Growers say there’s a shortage of taller ones, especially the popular Nordmann firs from Scandinavia.

Our home-grown trees have been affected by the lack of frost, which apparently means that they are likely to lose their needles more quickly.

Worst for shedding is the Norway spruce; for needle stickability, a lodgepole pine is hard to beat.

When you get your tree home cut at least an inch off the stem, and plunge it into a bucket of water. Keep the tree in a cool place until you need it.

Holly is well furnished with berries this year, and mistletoe is said to be in good condition with plenty of pearly white berries.

Evergreens may have lost some of their old power, but they still bring a special magic to our homes.