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Christmas trees, wreaths, and other seasonal decorations made out of greenery ornament our homes, streets, and churches at Christmas time. Ancient peoples also celebrated winter festivals with decorations of greenery. Over the centuries Christmas appears to have absorbed some of these ancient customs.

Ancient Beliefs and Customs

Evergreen plants, such as holly, ivy, mistletoe, laurel (or bay), yew, fir, spruce, and pine stay green all year round (see also Rosemary). For many ancient peoples, this special property converted these plants into seasonal symbols of the promise of new life or eternal life. Holly, ivy, and mistletoe may have been especially revered, since they not only stay green in winter, but also bear fruit during this harsh season. The pagan peoples of northern Europe garlanded their homes with greenery during their winter festival, Yule. Perhaps they wished to honor and imitate the triumph of these living greens over the cold and darkness of winter. Further south, the Romans also decorated their homes with greenery during their winter festivals, Saturnalia and Kalends. In addition, friends exchanged sprigs of holly as tokens of good will and good wishes for the upcoming new year (see also New Year's Day).

Christianity and Winter Greenery

For hundreds of years, Christian officials waged a campaign against the old pagan European practices. Tertullian, a third-century Christian writer, admonished those followers of the new religion, Christianity, who practiced these old customs. He thundered: "Let those who have no Light burn their (pagan) lamps daily. Let those who face the fire of hell affix laurels to their door-posts. . . . You are a light of the world, a tree ever green; if you have renounced the pagan temple, make not your home such a temple!" A sixth-century Church council (the Second Council of Braga) forbade Christians the use of green boughs in home decoration. This edict implies that many Christians were still adorning their homes with greenery at that time.

In southern Europe such criticism extinguished this practice, but further north - especially in Germany and England - it continued. In medieval and Renaissance times, many English songs still depicted holly and ivy as special plants associated with the winter season. These songs may indicate that earlier beliefs about winter greenery dimmed but never completely died out, in spite of Church opposition.

Unable to completely destroy this custom, the Church eventually set about reinterpreting these seasonal symbols. Christian legends developed over time, explaining the connection between these evergreens and the Christmas season (see also Nativity Legends). Laurel, for example, represented the triumph of Jesus Christ. Holly became a symbol of the Virgin Mary's love for God. Its spiky leaves and blood-red berries also served to remind Christians that Jesus would end his days wearing a crown of thorns.

Not only did the use of greenery persist in seasonal home decorations but the practice also crept into church decorations. One sixteenth-century observer of English customs commented that parishioners bedecked both home and church with ivy, holly, bay and other greenery at Christmas time. Some authorities claim that mistletoe was seldom adopted for English church decorations, however, due to its strong associations with the pagan past. One notable exception to this trend occurred at York Cathedral during medieval times. A branch of mistletoe was placed on the high altar on Christmas Eve, signaling a general pardon for all wrongdoers for as long as it remained there.

The Green Branch as a Symbol

For many centuries green branches symbolized hospitality or the reconciliation of differences. During the Middle Ages messengers, negotiators, and heralds carried them in times of battle to signify their peaceful intentions. Taverns and inns hung green boughs, especially ivy, above their doors in lieu of printed signs. Even after literacy spread and lettered signs came into common use, many pubs retained related names, such as The Ivy Bush or The Greenwood Tree.

Christmas Greenery

Many English folk beliefs suggested that the evergreens most closely connected with Christmas possessed subtle powers. Holly offered protection against witches, and rosemary against evil spirits. Ivy granted good luck to women, while holly bestowed good luck on men. Special customs developed in order to harness the beneficial powers of these plants and deflect the harmful ones. For instance, some believed that winter greenery should not be brought into the house before Christmas Eve or Christmas Day lest it carry ill luck with it. From Christmas to Epiphany, however, garlands of greenery inside the home might bring good luck. According to others, a mischievous wood sprite hid behind each sprig of greenery carried into the house for decoration. During the Twelve Days of Christmas these sprites kept their peace, but afterwards they might begin to vex the occupants of the household with their pranks (see also Elves).

In some parts of England, people dismantled their decorative greenery on Twelfth Day. In other parts of the country, the ornaments were left until Candlemas. The seventeenth-century English poet Robert Herrick reminded others of the importance of removing winter greenery by Candlemas with these lines, "For look how many leaves there be / Neglected there maids trust to me / So many goblins you shall see." In many cases, folk beliefs cautioned that the withered greens should not simply be tossed away when taken down, but disposed of ceremoniously. Some believed that they should be burned. Others thought that burning them drew bad luck and that feeding them to cattle might preserve their good luck. Still others felt that they should simply be left to decay on their own. Sometimes a sprig of holly or mistletoe was saved for the following year. These sprigs might be used to light the fire under the next year's Christmas pudding (see Plum Pudding).

Although seasonal decorations of greenery have festooned centuries of Christmas celebrations, the style and components of these decorations have changed over time. In Britain, the custom of hanging up a bit of mistletoe, often in the form of a kissing bough, reached the height of its popularity in the eighteenth century and began to fall from favor in the nineteenth. The nineteenth century saw other changes in British Christmas decorations as well. Before that time the English trimmed their homes with laurel, rosemary, ivy, holly, box, and yew. In the nineteenth century holly rose from the ranks to become the favorite plant of English Christmas decorations, replacing, to some extent, the wider variety of winter greenery used. Finally, the British and the Americans adopted the German custom of bringing a Christmas tree into their homes in the nineteenth century. Today the Christmas tree reigns supreme over all other forms of Christmas greenery and has become a widely recognized symbol of the holiday.

Further Reading

Auld, William Muir. Christmas Traditions. 1931. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1992. Baker, Margaret. Christmas Customs and Folklore. Aylesbury, Bucks, England: Shire Publications, 1968. Crippen, Thomas G. Christmas and Christmas Lore. 1923. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Drury, Susan. "Customs and Beliefs Associated with Christmas Evergreens." Folklore 98, 2 (1987): 194-99. Hole, Christina. Christmas and Its Customs. New York: M. Barrows and Company, 1958. Segall, Barbara. The Holly and the Ivy. New York: Clarkson Potter, 1991. Weiser, Francis X. The Christmas Book. 1952. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003
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