It’s hard to believe it’s December and Christmas is upon us. It’s the time of year when fairy lights in various hues begin to adorn houses along our street, and Christmas trees appear overnight with neon twinkles and gaudy baubles.

When it comes to decorations I’m a bit of a purist. I have never liked tinsel and can only cope with lights the colour of candle light. Don’t get me wrong, I love dressing the house but I prefer a more natural look.

Each year I collect bundles of holly and ivy to festoon the living room, adding sprigs of rosemary and bay leaf to impart a lovely scent. I’m also a sucker for mistletoe and can’t help buying a big bunch every year (even though the berries usually drop off long before Christmas Day). The result is a home which might look eccentric, but for centuries this is how people bedecked their houses around winter solstice and Christmas.

Christmas decorations, image by Claire Fleetneedle

Long before the Victorian introduction of the German-inspired Christmas tree, people made their own decorations from whatever was still green during winter. All kinds of plants were used, from yew and laurel to fir and box. The most popular has always been holly, ivy and mistletoe, perhaps because of the magical associations of each plant. All three were once considered a powerful symbol of life, as they flourish and bear fruit when everything else has died back. Holly was believed masculine, Ivy feminine; both were thought to bring fertility and good fortune, and vital protection against evil spirits. Holly was considered so protective by the Druids they wore a sprig in their hair.

Mistletoe also had Druidic mystical associations. They harvested it on the sixth day of the moon waning closest to the winter solstice. Collected from sacred oaks with a golden sickle, catching its fall from the tree with pure white cloth, it was believed that if the plant touched the ground it would lose it potency both as a medicine and an ingredient in magical rites. To the druids, mistletoe was a symbol of everlasting life. Such was the plant’s association with pagan religions, the Christian church banned its use as a Christmas decoration inside churches.

York Minster bucked this trend, and every year the Dean hangs a ball of mistletoe at the high alter to signify the beginning of Christmas. The church is aware of the ritual’s likely pre-Christian origins, but they continue to honour this ancient tradition which can be traced in records as far back as the Middle Ages and is a redemption ceremony. Hanging the mistletoe ball is a symbol of amnesty and forgiveness for all local ‘wrong-doers’.  

Other evergreens were not so censored by the Church. Holly was adopted as a symbol of Christmas and was used with ivy, laurel and yew to deck the church with festive greenery. Parish accounts show holly and ivy being purchased as ‘Christmastide’ decorations from the 1500s onwards. Some were quite elaborate, as this 1827 account by George James Dew demonstrates:

‘As you enter the church over the porch doorway is “Emmanuel” in large letters made of bay leaves. The front of the gallery has a border of evergreens with “Unto us a Child is Born” made of variegated ivy…On the chancel arch is “Glory to God in the Highest” made in holly leaves.’

Ivy, image by Claire FleetneedleThis entry coincides with the era when Christmas began to gain momentum as a ‘serious’ celebration. Gradually – as the century progressed – the spirit of Christmas began to change. Charles Dickens’ novels played a large part in what we now think of as Christmas. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert also contributed, issuing pictures depicting their burgeoning family dressing a vast Christmas tree with gifts and baubles. Middle class women’s magazines told young housewives it was their duty to decorate their homes and provide the perfect Christmas. These elements sparked mass consumerism and new traditions, which are still with us today.

Before Victorian ideals took hold, Christmas was a humbler affair. Evergreens were gathered and brought home, known as ‘bringing in the baies,’ and the greenery was often wound round a two-hooped wire structure until a decorative ball of foliage was formed. Suspended from the ceiling this sphere contained mistletoe and was known as a ‘Kissing Ball.’ More modest homes fashioned a section of mistletoe, holly and ivy into a ‘kissing bough.’ The origins of kissing under the mistletoe are muddled and, in truth, no one really knows exactly where the tradition began. At one time a berry had to be picked before a kiss could be enjoyed and once the berries were all gone, no more kissing was permitted.  A traditional old rhyme went:

Pick a berry off the mistletoe
For every kiss that’s given
When the berries have all gone
There’s an end to kissing

Although that part of the custom has disappeared in the mists of time, the mistletoe kissing tradition persists.

Holly and ivy decorations pepper historical accounts such as 15th century popular poems and carols.  John Stow, a historian and antiquarian, perhaps most famous for his 1598 Survey of London, wrote in old age about Henry VIII’s London claiming that ‘every man’s house was decked in holly and ivy… whatsoever the season of the year afforded to be green’.

Henry VIII himself wrote a song on the subject entitled Grene Growith the Holy:

A! the holy growith grene
With ive all alone,
When flowerys cannot be sene,
And grene wode levys be gone.                             
Grene growith the holy so doth the ive;
Thow winter blastys blow never so hye,
Grene growith the holy

Royal accounts show that the court of Elizabeth I also purchased holly and ivy and, in later years, Robert Herrick (a 17th century clergyman and poet) left us further unique glimpses in his poetry. In his Ceremony upon Candlemas Eve he allows us a peek at Christmas decorations past:

Down with the rosemary, and so,
Down with the baies and mistletoe,
Down with the holly, ivie, all,
Wherewith ye drest the Christmas hall,

Holly, image by Claire FleetneedleDuring the 17th century, in some parts of Britain it was customary to remove evergreen decorations the day before Candlemas (February 2). In other counties, decorations were taken down on twelfth night (either January 5 or 6), a tradition which is still with us. Although regional dates differed, all adhered to the ritual burning of the foliage, usually outside the home. Not burning them was considered extremely inauspicious. It was also very bad luck to decorate your home before Christmas Eve, quite a contrast to today.

While people decorated their homes for many centuries, it was the Victorians who began the trends we consider quintessentially festive today – the tree, the baubles, the presents, and even the Christmas cracker. Perhaps the Victorian quest for the perfect family Christmas with all the trimmings has left future generations trying to compete and maybe feeling they have failed?

But it’s worth remembering that before all of this, the 12 days of Christmas were about feasting and fun, simple pleasures and even simpler decorations.

That’s why I like using evergreens so much. They remind me of the real spirit of Christmas – celebrating life and good food, family and friendships. Recently, I read an article about the rise in popularity of ‘frugal festivities’ and one person’s comment resonated. They said they could never remember what gifts they’d received during Christmases past, but they could remember exactly who they were with.

Yuletide Felicitations.

By Claire Fleetneedle

mistletoeDISCLAIMER: These are some of my personal experiences of using the above herbs combined with information I have researched over a number of years. I am not encouraging people to self-medicate; in the treatment of specific conditions it is best to consult a herbalist or your GP. Always check if any pharmaceutical medication you are taking is compatible before trying herbs.  If you should develop an adverse reaction to any of the herbs mentioned above please stop using them immediately. Always take care when identifying plants.