Before shiny tinsel and lights, it was the tradition to decorate the home for Christmas using evergreen plants, such as holly, ivy and mistletoe. All three have, therefore, long been linked with the winter festivals, and have accrued their fair share of superstitions and myths. Decorating rooms with branches of evergreens in winter was a Roman tradition, and decorating with greenery is also an ancient Jewish tradition. It should come as no surprise, then, that Christians incorporated such traditions, though this is probably more because the Pagan traditions proved to hard to stamp out!
Apart from their attractive appearance, Christmas decorations of holly are also guardians against evil, although it is considered bad luck to keep them up after Twelfth Night — January 6, which coincides with the Old Christmas Day. Eastern Orthodox Christian traditions still hold to this calendar for their Christmas season, which is why some folk are getting all Christmassy just as the rest of us are packing away the tired decorations for another year.
There are something like 600 species of holly around the world. Holly supposedly derives its name from the word “holy”, though more accurately it seems the word comes to English from Germanic roots. Tradition says holly’s evergreen leaves represent eternal life, its thorns and red berries are symbolic of the Crown of Thorns worn by Christ at his crucifixion. Probably from Pagan times, holly’s prickles make it an ideal deterrent against all evil spirits, which is the reason for making holly wreath displays for front doors, and decorating the rooms of our homes with it to ensure a happy and misfortune-free Christmas. Superstition does decree, however, that you must pick the holly before Christmas Eve, or be open to the evil intentions of any enemy you may have in either the real or the spirit world.
Because of its association with the Roman god Bacchus, ivy used to be hung outside inns and was naturally considered a good luck plant. If it grows on the walls of a house it is said to protect those inside from misfortune and the ministrations of evil spirits, but should the plant die then those inside are in for misfortune, probably of the financial kind. Again, the name comes to us from an old Germanic form. The heart-shaped leaves are said to symbolise the coming to earth of Jesus.
Mistletoe featured prominently in Greek mythology, which also appears to have influenced the Scandinavian myths about the plant. It all begins to get a bit complicated from there, what with Loki,Baldr and Höðr, Frigg and an arrow made of mistletoe. If such things take your interest, type mistletoe into Wikipedia! Surprisingly, although mistletoe is commonly known as a Christmas decoration, it wasn’t well known until a couple of centuries ago.
According to tradition, the mistletoe must not touch the ground between harvesting and removal as the last greens at Candlemas – which is not on Twelfth Night as you might think. You might also note that while it is perfectly permissible to cut down a few branches of mistletoe, never take the whole tree, for this will result in the dire bad luck. It may also remain hanging through the year, as a ward to protect the house against fire or being struck by lightning, until replaced on the following Christmas Eve.
Many of us may know the tradition of kissing beneath the mistletoe. This seems to be a Scandinavian custom, where any two people who meet under a hanging mistletoe are obliged to kiss.
Finally, a warning about a piece of mistletoe which has been much kissed under — unless it is burned on Twelfth Night, says a superstition found in many European countries, all those who kissed beneath it will be quarrelling before the year is out.
The next instalment in this short seasonal series ought to be about Father Christmas himself.