Given our woodland connections, we’re always fascinated to find out how traditions involving plants and greenery came about. Last year we looked at mistletoe, so this year we’ve turned our attention to holly and ivy as well as some other festive flora.
As with most traditions, using holly and ivy to decorate homes came about way before Christian times. Readily available, they were a favourite in Pagan times during the winter solstice to ward off evil spirits – because they were green all-year-round, they were deemed to have magical powers. What’s more, they also helped to freshen up stale, indoor air as well as remind everyone that spring would soon be on its way.
Holly was chosen because of its prickles – by circling your door with holly boughs, it was believed its leaves would capture meddlesome sprites. Holly was also held to be a male plant and ivy, its female counterpart. The two were burnt together during the festival of Beltane and became intrinsically linked to one another.
An old Midlands customer suggested that, whichever was brought into the house first, signified which of the sexes would rule the roost for the coming year! Either way, it was seen as bad luck to bring either into the house before Christmas Eve.
Once Christianity begun to dominate Europe, holly’s popularity continued as it represented Christ’s crown of thorns with the red berries being drops of blood.
Ivy has to cling to something to enable it to grow and Christians likened it to their need to cling to God throughout life. Some European countries tried to ban the use of greenery indoors due to its links to Paganism. Germany was one such country where ivy is only used to decorate outdoors – you can still see sprigs of ivy tied to church doors as it was meant to ward off lightning strikes.
There are many forgotten traditions associated with ivy – farmers used to feed their cattle a sprig of ivy before midday on Christmas Day to fend off evil in the coming year. The last record of this taking place was a farm in Shropshire in the 1930s.
Drinking from a vessel hewn from ivy wood was said to ward off the after effects of imbibing the Christmas spirit a little too much.
Using rosemary and other herbs to add flavour to the turkey is more than just culinary. Rosemary was thought to be the Virgin Mary’s favourite plant so people felt it could ward off evil spirits.
It is also the plant of friendship and was used to signify this in dishes served at Christmas from the Middle Ages onwards. Rosemary is the herb of remembrance and continued to be used in Christmas dishes to remember the birth of Christ.
Before Christmas trees came into their own in Victorian times, the Brits used to make kissing boughs. These were created from five wooden hoops used to make a ball framework, which were then decorated with a variety of evergreen plants. Red apples were strung in the middle and a large bunch of mistletoe hung from the base. Nowadays, all that remains of this tradition is the bunch of mistletoe we hang at Christmas, although it’s believed that the practice of placing a wreath on a door came from the original kissing boughs.
So, as you decorate your house with foliage, you’re following a tradition that spans thousands of years. We’d love to hear about any such traditions associated with the area of the country you live, so do drop us a line.