The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Decking Churches And Houses With Evergreens At Christmas

Source: John Brand, Observations on Popular Antiquities. With the Additions of Sir Henry Ellis. London: Chatto and Windus, 1888, pp. 278-283.

"From ev'ry hedge is pluck'd by eager hands
The Holly branch with prickly leaves replete,
And fraught with berries of a crimson hue;
Which, torn asunder from its parents trunk,
Is straightway taken to the neighb'ring towns,
Where windows, mantels, candlesticks, and shelves,
Quarts, pints, decanters, pipkins, basons, jugs,
And other articles of household ware,
The verdant garb confess."

                            Christmas, A Poem

This custom also the Christians seem to have copied from their Pagan ancestors. Bourne cites the 73rd Canon of the Council of Bracara, as forbidding Christians to deck their houses with bay leaves and green boughs; but this applied only to their doing so at the same time with the Pagans.

So also Prynne, who gives nearly the same words from the 73rd Canon of the "Concilium Antisiodorense" held in France in 614, cites the Councils as forbidding the early Christians "to decke up their houses with lawrell, yvie, and green boughes (as we use to doe in the Christmass Season)."

In his Travels in Greece, Chandler tells us that it is related where Druidism prevailed the houses were decked with evergreens in December, in order the sylvan spirits might repair to them, and remain unnipped by frost and cold winds until a milder season had renewed the foliage of their darling abodes.

The following dull epigram occurs in an old collection of poetry—


“At Christmass men do always Ivy get,
And in each corner of the house it set:
But why do they then use that Bacchus’ weed?
Because they mean, then, Bacchus-like to feed.”

Bourne cites an oration of Gregory Nazianzen, which throws light upon the ancient rites of Christmas Day. “Let us not,” says he, “celebrate the feast after an earthly, but an heavenly manner; let not our doors be crowned ; let not dancing be encouraged; let not the cross-paths be adorned, the eyes fed, nor the ears delighted; let us not feast to excess, nor be drunk with wine.”

“Trimmyng of the Temples,” says Polydore Vergil, “with hangynges, floures, boughes, and garlondes, was taken of the heathen people, whiche decked their idols and houses with such array.”

Stow, in his Survey of London, writes that against the Feast of Christmas all the houses, as well as the parish churches, were decked with holme, ivy, bayes, and whatsoever of green the season of the year afforded. “The Conduits and Standards in the streets were likewise garnished: among the which I read that in the year 1444 by tempest of thunder and lightning, towards the morning of Candlemas Day, at the Leaden-hall, in Cornhill, a Standard of tree, being set up in the midst of the pavement, fast in the ground, nailed full of holme and ivie, for disport of Christmass to the people, was tome up and cast downe by the malignant Spirit (as was thought), and the stones of the pavement all about were cast in the streets, arid into divers houses, so that the people were sore aghast at the great tempests.”

In the ancient Calender of the Church of Rome we find the following observations on Christmas Eve—

“Templa exornantur.” — Churches are decked.

Gay describes this custom in his Trivia—

“When Rosemary and Bays, the poet’s crown,
Are bawl’d in frequent cries through all the town.;
Then judge the festival of Christmass near,
Christmass, the joyous period of the year!
Now with bright Holly all the temples strow,
With Lawrel green, and sacred MISLETOE.”

Among the Annual Disbursements of the church of St Mary at Hill, London, we find the following entry: “Holme and Ivy at Christmas Eve iiijd.” In the Churchwardens’ Accounts of St Laurence’s Parish, Reading, for 1505, we read: “It. payed to Makrell for the Holy Bussh agay Christmas ijd;” and those of St Martin Outwich, London, for 1524, is : “It’m for Holy and Ivye at Christmas ijd;” and for 1525: “Payd for Holy and Ivye at Chrystmas ijd.” Similarly in those of the Parish of St Margaret, Westminster, 1647, we read: “Item paid for Rosemarie and Bayes that was stuck about the church at Christmas, 1s. 6d.”

In Herbert’s Country Parson, the author tells us : “Our Parson takes order that the church be swept and kept clean, without dust or cobwebs, and at great festivals strawed and stuck with boughs, and perfumed with incense.”

A writer in the Gentleman’s Magazine for 1765 conjectures that the ancient custom of dressing churches and houses at Christmas with laurel, box, holly, or ivy, was in allusion to many figurative expressions in the Prophets relative to Christ the Branch of Righteousness, &c., or that it was in remembrance of the Oratory of Wrythen Wands or Boughs, which was the first Christian church erected in Britain. Before we can admit either of these hypotheses, the question must be determined whether or not this custom did not prevail at this season prior to the introduction of the Christian faith amongst us.

Another writer in July 1783, remarking on the same usage, inquires : “May we refer the Branches (as well as the Palms on Palm Sunday) to this, ‘And they cut down Branches and strewed them in the way?’”

A third writer in the same Miscellany for May 1811, speaking of the manner in which the inhabitants of the North Riding of Yorkshire celebrate Christmas, says: “The Windows and Pews of the Church (and also the windows of Houses) are adorned with branches of Holly, which remain till GOOD FRIDAY.”

This illustrates the Spectator’s observation that our forefathers looked into Nature with other eyes than we do now, and always ascribed common natural effects to supernatural causes. It should seem that this joy of the people at Christmas was death to their infernal enemy. Envying their festal pleasures, and owing them a grudge, he took this opportunity of spoiling their sport.

Bourne observes that this custom of adorning the windows at this season with bay and laurel is but seldom used in the North ; but in the South, particularly at our universities, it is very common to deck not only the common windows of the town, but also the chapels of the colleges, with branches of laurel ; which was used by the ancient Romans as the emblem of peace, joy, and victory. In the Christian sense it may be applied to the victory gained over the powers of darkness by the coming of Christ.

In a curious tract (without date, but certainly published about the beginning of the last century) entitled Round about our Coal Fire, or Christmas Entertainments, occurs the following passage on this subject : “The Rooms were embowered with Holly,1 Ivy, Cyprus, Bays, Laurel, and Misletoe, and a bouncing Christmas Log in the Chimney.”

In this Account the “CYPRUS” is quite a new article. Indeed, one should as soon have expected to see the yew as the cypress used on this joyful occasion.

Coles, however, in his Art of Simpling (1656), tells us: “In some places setting up of Holly, Ivy, Rosemary, Bayes, YEW, &C., in Churches at Christmass, is still in use ;“ while use of box as well as yew, “to decke up Houses in Winter,” is noticed in Parkinson’s Garden of Flowers (1629).

Although Gay mentions the MISTLETOE among the evergreens that were put up in churches, it probably never entered those sacred edifices except through mistake or ignorance of the sextons ; for it was the heathenish and profane plant, as having been of such distinction in the pagan rites of Druidism; and it therefore had a place assigned to it in kitchens, where it was hung up in great state with its white berries ; and, when a female chanced to stand under it, the young man present either had or claimed the right of saluting her, and of plucking off a berry at each kiss. An old sexton at Teddington in Middlesex informed the author that some mistletoe was once put up in the church there, but was by the clergyman immediately ordered to be taken away.

Stukeley, in his Medallic History of Carausius, mentions the introduction of mistletoe into York Cathedral on Christmas Eve as a relic of Druidism. Speaking of the winter solstice (our Christmas), he says: “This was the most respectable festival of our Druids, called Yule-tide; when Misletoe, which they called All-heal, was carried in their hands and laid on their altars, as an emblem of the salutiferous advent of Messiah. This Misletoe they cut off the trees with their upright hatchets of brass, called Celts, put upon the ends of their staffs, which they carried in their hands. Innumerable are these instruments found all over the British Isles.

“The custom is still preserved in the North, and was lately at York. On the Eve of Christmas-Day they carry MISLETOE to the high Altar of the Cathedral and proclaim a public and universal liberty, pardon, and freedom to all sorts of inferior and even wicked people at the gates of the city, towards the four quarters of Heaven."

Colbatch, in his dissertation concerning mistletoe, which he strongly recommends as a medicine potent to subdue not only the epilepsy, but all other convulsive disorders, observes that this beautiful plant must have been designed by the Almighty “for further and more noble purposes than barely to feed thrushes, or to be hung up superstitiously in Houses to drive away evil Spirits.” “The high veneration,” he adds, “in which the Druids were anciently held by people of all ranks, proceeded in a great measure from the wonderful cures they wrought by means of the Mistletoe of the Oak: this tree being sacred to them, but none so that had not the Mistletoe upon them.”

By the Druids the mistletoe of the oak was held to be prime ;2 but Colbatch endeavours to evince that the mistletoe of the crab, the lime, the pear, or any other tree, is of equal virtue. This sacred epidendron is beautifully described by Virgil in the 6th Æneid—

“Quale solet silvis brumali frigore Viscum
Fronde virere nova, quod non sua seminat Arbos,
Et croceo foetu teretes circumdare truncos:
Talis erat species,” &c.

A correspondent of the Gentleman’s Magazine for February 1791 writes that GUIDHEL, Mistletoe, a magical shrub, “appears to be the forbidden Tree in the middle of the Trees of Eden; for in the Edda the Misseltoe is said to be Balder’s death, who yet perished through blindness and a woman,”

Christie, in his Inquiry into the ancient Greek Game (1801), refers to the respect the Northern nations entertained for the mistletoe, and to the fact “of the Celts and Goths being distinct in the instance of their equally venerating tile Mistletoe about the time of the year when the Sun approached the Winter Solstice.” And he adds: “We find by the allusion of Virgil, who compared the golden Bough in Infernis to the Mistletoe, that the use of this plant was not unknown in the religious ceremonies of the antients, particularly the Greeks, of whose poets he was the acknowledged imitator.”

The cutting of the mistletoe was a ceremony of great solemnity with our early ancestors. The people went forth in procession; the bards leading the way singing canticles and hymns; a herald preceding three Druids with the necessary implements; and the chief of the. Druids attended by the body of the people bringing up the rear. Mounting the oak and cutting the mistletoe with a golden sickle, he presented it to the other Druids; who received it with every token of respect, and on the first day of the year distributed it among the people as a sacred and holy plant, exclaiming, “The mistletoe for the New Year !”

Nares writes that “the custom longest preserved was the hanging up of a bush of mistletoe in the kitchen or servants’ hail, with the charm attached to it, that the maid who was not kissed under it at Christmas would not be married that year.” Time has not obliterated the superstition.

Notes From Brand & Ellis:

1. The following carol in praise of the HOLLY, written during the reign of the sixth Henry, is in the Harleian Collection of Manuscripts, No. 5396—

“Nay, Ivy! nay, it shall not be, I wys; ...

[See The Contest of the Ivy and the Holly]

From this it should seem that holly was used only to deck the inside of houses at Christmas; while ivy was used not only as a vintner’s sign, but also among the evergreens at funerals. Return

2. The mistletoe of the oak, which is very rare, is vulgarly said to be a cure for wind-ruptures in children; and, on the same authority, the variety found upon the apple is good for fits.

In the Statistical Account of Scotland (1794), parish of Kiltarlity, county of Inverness, it is recorded: “In Lovat’s Garden are a great number of Standard Trees. On two Standard Apple Trees here Mistletoe grows, which is a very rare plant in this country.” Return

Also see:

From W. Carew Hazlitt, Faith and Folklore. Two Volumes. London: Reeves and Turner, 1905. ("Forming A New Edition of 'The Popular Antiquities of Great Britain' By Brand and Ellis.")

Rebuking The Parson from Washington Irving, Old Christmas – From the Sketch Book of Washington Irving (London: Macmillan & Co., Fifth Edition, 1886), p. 96; Illustrated by Randolph Caldecott.

Editor's Note: I regret that I am unable to provide a translation of any Latin or French passages.

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