With shops and supermarkets already brimming over with Christmas merchandise I think that we can safely assume that the Christmas season has started. The John Lewis yuletide TV Ad probably confirm it. But before you rush off to deck your halls with boughs of holly, tra la la la la etc etc… you might consider what folk-lore has to say on the matter.

holly and the ivy 2

According to tradition Christmas Eve is ‘the proper time for placing festive evergreens’ and not before. (In Rutland it was thought positively unlucky to bring holly into the home before then.) A likely explanation for this adherence to Christrmas Eve dates back to pre-Christian times when evergreens were thought to be home to mischievous wood spirits and their chums. Who knows what havoc they might cause if brought into the home before the Christ-Child could hold them in check with his mystical presence?

Despite this Christmas caveat many people were happy to disregard the fairies and stick up the old holly and the ivy as soon as possible. They were encouraged in this risky indulgence by strolling hawkers…

"When rosemary and bays, the poet's crown,
Are bawled in frequent cries throughout the town,
Then judge the festival of Christmas near -
Christmas, the joyous period of the year.
Now, with bright holly all the temples strow,
With laurel green and sacred mistletoe"

JOHN GAY - “Trivia”

royal christmastree

And it would seem that once they got their hands on the stuff they went crazy! In “The Survey of London” compiled in 1598 historian John Stow reports…

“Not only churches and houses, but the conduits and standards in the streets were likewise garnished”, a theme picked up in the ‘Spectator’ in January 1712…

“Our clerk, who was once a gardener, has this Christmas so overdeckt the church with greens that he has quite spoilt my prospect…The middle aisle is a very pretty shady walk, and the pews look like so many arbours on each side of it. The pulpit itself has such clusters of Ivy, holly and rosemary about it that a fellow in our pew took occasion to say that the congregation heard the Word out of a bush, like Moses!”

Plough Monday

Of course everything that goes up must come down and there was always dispute as to when that might be. Some said that all decorations should be taken down by Twelfth Night, i.e the 5th January. Others opted for Plough Monday, the first Monday after Twelfth Night when agricultural work resumed after the Christmas festivities… apart from in Shropshire where tradition demanded that evergreen decorations come down on Christmas Eve. Does this mean that Shropshire traditionalists put them up on Christmas Eve and then immediately took them down again?

Some hardcore Yule tide fans argued that the decorations should stay up until Candlemas on the 2nd February- the 40th day after Christmas, when the Virgin Mary presented Jesus in the Temple and Simeon the Righteous recognised the Child as the long awaited “Light to lighten the Gentiles.”

And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel.


holly and the ivy 3

A final word of Christmas caution. Tradition demanded that once evergreen decorations were taken down they should be left to naturally compost away - apart from in Shropshire where they burnt them even though this was considered bad luck. Apparently in Shropshire they just didn’t care!

– from Martyn Day