The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Christmas Decorations At Christmas

Source: Brand's Popular Antiquities Of Great Britain

W. Carew Hazlitt, Faith and Folklore: A Dictionary of National Beliefs, Superstitions and Popular Customs, Past and Current, With Their Classical and Foreign Analogues, Described and Illustrated.

Forming A New Edition of "The Popular Antiquities of Great Britain" By Brand and Ellis, Largely Extended, Corrected, Brought Down To The Present Time, and Now First Alphabetically Arranged.

In Two Volumes

London: Reeves and Turner, 1905.

Vol. 1, pp. 127-28

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. "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 suche array." Bourne cites the Council of Bracara, Canon 73, as forbidding Christians to deck their houses with bay leaves and green boughs; but this extended only to their doing it at the same time with the Pagans. Antiq. Vulg. 173. "Non liceat iniquas observantias agere Kalendarum et ociis vacare Gentilibus, neque lauro, neque viriditate arborum cingere dornos. Omnis enim hæc observatso Paganismi est."—Bracc Can. 73 Instell.

Prynne, in his Histrio-Mastix, 1633, p. 581, cites nearly the same words from the 73d Canon of the Concilium Antisiodorense, in France, A.D. 614. In the same work, p. 21, he cites the Councils as forbidding the early Christians to "decke up their houses with lawrell, yvie, and greene boughes (as we used to doe in the Christian season)." Adding from Ovid Fasti, lib. iii.

"Hedera est gratissima Baccho."

Compare also Tertull. do Idol. cap. 15. In the Roman Calendar, I find the following observation on Christmas Eve: Templa exornantur. Among the annual disbursements of St. Mary-at-Hill, London, there is the following entry: "Holme and ivy at Christmas Eve, iiijd." In the Church-wardens’ accounts of St. Laurence’s parish, Reading, 1505, quoted by Coates, we read: "It. payed to Makrell for the holy bush agayn Christmas, ijd." In the accounts of St. Martin Outwich, London, 1524, is: "Item for holy and ivy at Christmas, ijd. ob. — 1525, Payd for holy and ivye at Chrystmas, ijd." In similar accounts for St. Margaret, Westminster, 1647, we read: "Item, paid for rosemarie and bayes that was stuck about the church at Christmas, 1s. 6d." Coles, in his "Art of Simpling," 1656, p. 64, tells us, "In some places setting up of holly, ivy, rosemary, bayes, yew, &c., in churches at Christmas is still in use." The use of box as well as yew, "to decke up houses in winter," is noticed in Parkinson’s "Garden of Flowers," &c., 1629, p. 666.

Stow, in his "Survey,", says that, "against the feast of Christmas, every man’s house, as also their parish churches, were decked with holme, ivy, bayes, and whatsoever the season of the year afforded to be green. 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 Leadenhall, 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 Christmas to the people, was torne up and caste down by the malignant spirit (as was thought), and the stones of the pavement all about were cast in the streets, and into divers houses so that the people were sore aghast at the great tempests." This illustrates the Spectator’s observation, where he tells us 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. In Herbert’s "Country Parson," 1675, p. 56, 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."

"When rosemary and bays, the poet’s crown,
Are brawl’d in frequent cries through all 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 lawrel green, and sacred mistletoe."

— Gay’s Trivia. 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. The custom of decking churches at Christmas is still continued in Devonshire, as it was in Brand’s day." Chandler tells us, in his "Travels in Greece," that it is related where Druidism prevailed the houses were decked with evergreens in December, that the sylvan spirits might repair to them, and remain unnipped with frost and cold winds, until a milder season had renewed the foliage of their darling abodes.

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

Compare: John Brand, Observations on Popular Antiquities. With the Additions of Sir Henry Ellis. London: Chatto and Windus, 1888:

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