One of the most popular customs of this season for our Christian ancestors was the Christmas decorations. Long before the arrival of Christianity evergreens were used to decorate sacred places such as groves and holy wells and the early Christians later adopted this tradition for both their churches and their homes. The holly, one of the most common evergreens was used in the Roman festival of Saturnalia which took place about the third week in December and it seems that the Roman Catholics brought this custom with them to England. Rosemary, laurel, bay, holly and box were used frequently where as fir, yew and mistletoe, were not used that much in churches. Perhaps their connection to pagan spirituality was the reason for this. However, all of these evergreens were used to decorate homes, market crosses and other public places.
“Now with bright holly all your temples strow, with laurel green and sacred mistletoe”. John Gray’s book ‘Trivia’ 1716.
Over the centuries rosemary has been a symbol of love, death and remembrance. One legend describes how the virgin Mary once rested by a rosemary bush while travelling and her cloak that touched the flowers turned them from white to blue. And that is where the herb’s name comes from; the Rose of Mary. Rosemary garlands used to be hung around church pillars and sprigs were placed on the floor and altar. Roman priests used it as an incense and it was also burned in homes where someone had died. It was thought to protect against witches too.
Like many of the evergreens, bay laurel was thought to protect against thunder and lightning. Sacred to the sun it was used to expel household smells.
Druids performed rituals in yew groves as well as oak groves. Connected to sacred wells and springs the yew’s symbolism of death clung to it more than its symbolism of eternity.
It was recorded in Derbyshire that at least one of the leaded diamond shaped windows of a cottage should have a sprig of holly, yew and box in it. However, the yew was not be taken from a church yard tree and the box had to be cut from a garden. In many parts of England it was seen as unlucky to bring holly and mistletoe into the house before Christmas Day and everyone had a different opinion as to when all of these decorations should be taken down. Ranging from Old Christmas day (5th or 6th January) to Candlemas day, the reason for their choice of date was always tempting ill luck or death if one didn’t follow what they saw as the customary day.
Some people used to burn the old evergreens while others believed this to be unlucky. (Folk-lore, vol. 2 ). In Staffordshire, people were known to keep some of their Christmas evergreens all year so as to prevent their house being struck by lightning (Folk-lore, vol. 7, 1896). In old farm houses a mistletoe bush hung from the kitchen ceiling until the following Christmas Eve, when it was burned and a fresh one was put up.
Leaves that stay green all year round have always been seen as a symbol of eternal life. They are usually the only greenery available in the middle of winter and the only trees and shrubs to bear berries.
In Medieval times, holly was believed to possess special healing powers and was used to treat fevers, rheumatism and colds. A lost traveller would have always looked to shelter under a holly bush so as to stay safe from evil spirits and a sprig of holly taken from a church decoration and hung at home would bring happiness and holiness to the household for the whole year.
Mistletoe was a sacred plant in Britain long before the arrival of Christianity. It was used in Druid rituals to thank the Gods for the end of the winter and the coming of spring. Just like holly, mistletoe was supposed to have healing powers too that could heal anything from toothache to epilepsy. It was also seen as a powerful protector from witchcraft.
In the northern counties of England, mistletoe was not easy to come by, so as a substitute people would have the ‘kissing bush’ instead. The Kissing Bough, as it was also known as, was a circle of evergreen on a framework of either iron, wood or willow shoots. There was a ring of candles above it and a ring of red apples below it. Sometimes small toys, dolls, oranges, nuts and trinkets were hung from it on ribbons. It was hung like a crown from the ceiling and was just high enough for two people to kiss underneath it.
The custom of decorating a tree at this time of year originates from northern Germany, in the valley of the Upper Rhine. There is a legend about St Boniface who is said to have offered the pagans he was trying to convert a young fir tree to replace their sacred oak. The fir tree was a symbol of the new faith he was preaching. During the Middle Ages, a play called The Paradise Play was performed around a fir tree decorated with apples inside a ring of lighted candles. After the play was no longer popular, the fir tree continued to be decorated at Christmas and people eventually brought it in to their homes. At first it was decorated with small white wafers that represented the body of Christ and eventually these were replaced with stars, angels, hearts, flowers and bells made out of pastry. In Strasbourg, at the beginning of the 17th century people decorated their fir trees with apples, sweets and paper roses. And by the middle of the century, candles and glittery decorations were added.
It is widely believed that Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband introduced the Christmas tree to England when he brought one back from his native Germany in 1841 to Windsor Castle. But actually, it was a member of Queen Caroline’s household who brought one over from Germany twenty years previously for a children’s party. In some regions it was traditional to fasten a large yew branch to a table and decorate it with taper candles and tissue paper. The children would then leave presents that they had made themselves for their parents underneath it on Christmas Eve. Then on Christmas day the parents would lay out the children’s presents on the table itself.
We all know about the tradition of ‘letting in the new year’, but long before this there was the custom of letting in Christmas day which was generally celebrated in the northern counties of England. A dark haired man would be paid to come into the house on Christmas morning before any other person was allowed to enter. The man usually walked in the front door and then walked straight out the back door. The concept of ‘first footing’ was to bring good luck to the household. Women were excluded from this custom and were quite often not allowed to enter the house at all on Christmas day as it was feared unlucky. It is thought that the reason why no red haired man was ever given this important role was due to the fact that many Viking raiders probably had red hair and over the centuries this dark memory grew into a superstitious tradition. After the conversion of Christianity the man with the red hair morphed into Judas Iscariot (British Calendar Customs vol. III)
Before the conversion of the Germanic peoples to Christianity it is believed that they decorated their trees outside at this time of year. As it was a pagan custom, it was viewed with disdain, so for those pagans who wished to continue to practice the old ways, they brought the trees inside their homes to avoid persecution.
In Cornwall, there was a children’s game that had them dancing around a basket filled with sand and lighted candles. The girls would dance around first and then the boys, all singing in a circle. This is more than likely a remnant of an ancient fire rite that was once performed at the winter solstice.
I will again end this Christmas post with some popular sayings of the time.
“If the sun shines on the apple trees on Christmas day, there will be a good crop next season.”
“If the sun shines through the church windows on Christmas morning, the next year will be a good one for fruit.”
“A windy Christmas day is followed by a good year for fruit.”
“A cricket chirruping at Christmas is a sign of good luck during the coming year.”
“A person born on Christmas day will be able to see spirits.”
“It is unlucky not to have both holly and mistletoe in the house at Christmas; they should be taken in together and part of the holly should be of the smooth and the remaining part of the prickly kind.”
If you bring yew into the house at Christmas among the other evergreens, you will have a death in the family before the end of the year.”
“No fire, in any form, must be given out of the house on Christmas day, nor some say, on any following day until Old Twelfth day is gone.”
“Christmas day is a lucky day on which to be born.”
“You will have a lucky month for each different person’s pudding you taste at Christmas.”
“To keep Christmas cakes or parts of them for a year will bring luck.”
“Hours of sun on Christmas day, so many frosts in the month of May.”
“If it rains much during the twelve days after Christmas day, the country people say that the following year will be wet.”
“If Christmas on a Sunday be, a windy winter we will see.”
“If Christmas day fall on a Monday, the winter will be severe and windy and tempests will be experienced in the summer.”
“If Christmas fall upon a Thursday, the year shall be temperate and healthy, but the summer will be rainy.”
“A Saturday’s Christmas is supposed to bring about a foggy winter and a cold summer.”
Well, there you have it, the second part of my Old English Christmas Customs series. This was another fun blog post to research and I hope that you enjoy reading it. If you want to find out more about holly, ivy and mistletoe or about the origins of Yule you can find other posts about those on my blog. Part 3 of this series will be coming soon.