Enjoying a jolly holly-day

What are your family Christmas traditions? Sixpences in the pudding? Snoozing afer dinner? Every home has its own favourites. But there are some Christmas traditions we all share, and while some go back centuries, there are others which are more recent than you might think.

Take the tradition of bringing greenery into the home during the darkest months of the year. This harks back to pagan times. For ancient people Christmas marked the turning of the year and the hope of spring and evergreen branches symbolised fertility and the renewal of life.

That explains our holly and ivy, the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe goes all the way back to Druid beliefs about eternal life symbolised by the mistletoe, which grew on their sacred oak tree. But the most common greenery we bring into our homes at Christmas is the Christmas tree, as traditions go it is a very new practice indeed.

We owe our Christmas tree to a famous love affair, the passion of Queen Victoria for her German husband, Prince Albert. Together, the two dreamed up a new vision of solid family life which would revolutionise the way their subjects lived and which still affects us today. And one of their first targets for a revamp was Christmas. Christmas before Victoria was a wild affair which dated back to pagan times.

The fun was presided over by the Lord of Misrule, full of lewd and naughty pranks, and usually strictly for the grown-ups. Stern Victoria, a family woman through and through, disapproved of this uncontrolled revelry. So she and Prince Albert cooked up a new-style celebration more in keeping with the strict values and morals they wished their society to follow. Out went the boozy Lord of Misrule, but Victoria did borrow some of the best pagan traditions.

Greenery, for instance, has been brought into our homes since pagan times. Victorians adopted them with a vengeance. As well as swags and wreaths, they embraced the idea of Christmas trees with enthusiasm. This was a tradition brought from Albert’s homeland of Germany, where trees were once worshipped. When Christianity came along the ancient Germans were still anxious not to offend the tree spirits, and so they brought them into their homes for the celebrations.

Victoria loved Christmas trees, especially bedecked with candles, which were first introduced in the 17th-century to symbolise the starlit sky on the night of the nativity. Before that, they were hung with paper roses and apples to honour Mary. Christmas trees had been a Royal favourite for many years, but led by Victoria and Albert the general population adopted them.

The Royals loved them to extremes, the royal children had one, and so did the ladies in waiting. Victoria wrote a card for each member of the Royal Household to hang on yet another. Victoria, her mother and her husband each had one to themselves, hung with candles, toffees and gingerbread.

No baubles, however, they did not come along until 1870 from Bohemia, where they were said to ward off the evil eye. The family even had them on the dinner table, thanks to a new trend for serving the dinner in dishes for guests to help themselves; this left plenty of room for festive decorations on the table itself and remains with us as a tradition today.

Feasting has been a tradition at Christmas time since pagan days, designed to ward off the harsh winter conditions and bring back the good times. Rich people would have perhaps decked their table with a boar’s head until the start of the last century, when it was replaced by a goose. Turkeys came along in Victoria’s time, and as they were imported from America they were at first a luxury only the very wealthy could afford. The plum pudding we know today also became popular in Victoria’s time, replacing an earlier plum porridge which was once served with the meat course.

And as for one tradition, we have taken it further than any generation before us. Christmas gifts were once only available to people with money, poor children might get a hand-made doll or wooden toy if they were lucky.

And as for that jolly bloke with the red suit who climbs down chimneys, he is very recent indeed. Although Santa is based on St Nicholas, Siner Klaas, a bishop brought to America by Dutch people, today’s version was invented by Thomas Nast in a Christmas cartoon in the American magazine Harper’s Weekly in 1863.

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The magic of Christmas décor

Christmas decorations are believed to have evolved from the use of holly, ivy and mistletoe as symbols for the season.

For example, the mistletoe-kissing tradition is believed to have come from Norse mythology, which says that the goddess Friga gave her son Balder to protect him from the elements. As it happened, Balder was killed by another god’s arrow made of mistletoe and Friga cried tears of white berries. The goddess brought her son back to life as a tree and vowed to kiss anyone who rested beneath the plant. Mistletoe is believed to possess powers to heal sickness and avert misfortune.

Holly, a plant with dark green spiky leaves and red berries, is believed to help in driving demons away. It is also a good luck charm against hostile forces of nature. A custom was to leave the holly, mistletoe and ivy up until the next holiday season so that good fortune would remain.

As far back as the 15th century, households and churches were seen decked with items of ivy, holm, bays and other affordable seasonal greens during Christmas. The décor was extended in street poles. In the coming years, the leaves were trimmed with beads, bright ribbon, paper stars and lace bags filled with candies.

The woods and fields provided an abundance of straw, pods, flowers and foliage for Christmas decorations. Thus started civilization’s fascination for Christmas décor as a way of brightening the cold dark nights of winter.

The holly and the ivy. And the mistletoe

The three herbs that are associated with Christmas are Holly (Ilex aquifolium), Ivy (Hedra helix) and Mistletoe (Viscum album). While all three are decorative features of the Christian festival, their original ceremonial use is rooted in paganism.

Holly, a member of the Aquifoliaceae, is evergreen and grows to 6m. It was thought to guard against evil in Druidic societies and they decked their dwellings with it at the time of the winter solstice. In Roman times Holly was exchanged at the December festival of Saturnalia, a tradition that was adopted by early Christians and is the reason for its prominence as a Christmas decoration. Anglo-Saxons used it to treat congested lungs. Holly is little used today but in the past was used to treat fevers, jaundice and rheumatism. While the berries are toxic and can be dangerous to children, they make a most efficient purge for adults. There is an Ilex vomitoria, which is self explanatory, and probably not required by those who prefer alchohol.

One of the most popular Christmastime accoutrements, holly has sharp edges, symbolic of the crown of thorns worn by Jesus at His crucifixion. The red berries represent blood.

Ivy, an evergreen climber and a member of the Araliaceae, is a woodland plant that will carpet the ground and climb any obstruction. Now a common house-plant or garden ornamental it was once thought to possess magical powers. Ivy was dedicated to Bacchus, the god of wine, and was worn as garlands during the Bacchinalia as it was thought to guard against intoxication, which would seem to make the ceremony a bit pointless.

Pharmaceutically the plant has anti-spasmodic and cardiac actions; small doses dilate the blood vessels while large ones constrict them and slow the heart beat. It was used to treat whooping cough and a tincture made from the berries and vinegar was used in the Great Plague of London. All parts of the plant are toxic and contact with leaves may cause dermatitis although the early New England settlers made poultices to treat swollen glands and leg ulcers with ivy. Like holly, the berries are a powerful purge which may explain its popularity at Christmas time.

We now come to the most potent and mysterious of the Christmas herbs, mistletoe. A member of the Loranthaceae, it is a parasitic evergreen shrub which forms bunches up to 3m across on host trees. The leaves are yellowy green and it produces sticky white berries that ripen in late autumn. It favours old apple trees but can be found on ash, hawthorn and oak. Anyone who has travelled through Normandy in winter will recall its abundance in the apple orchards.

The plant attained mythical status in many ancient societies; it was the ‘golden bough’ that saved Aeneas from the underworld. In Norse legends it was a bough of mistletoe that was used to kill Balder, the god of peace. This has given rise to the custom of kissing under the mistletoe as after his death the plant was entrusted to the Norse goddess of love. Personally I never thought of mistletoe as being weighty enough to kill a god.

Perhaps mistletoe is most associated with the Druids, they were said to remove it by using a golden knife, it was thought to protect them from all evil and they would sanctify the trees on which it grew. It is from this period that the reputed healing powers of the plant arose. The early Roman physicians Dioscorides and Galen knew that the Druids used the berries to treat topical tumours and they continued the practice. Hippocrates recorded its use in the treatment of cancer and epilepsy. In 18th century England it was a treatment for convulsions, hysteria and delirium.

Today it is applied to lower blood pressure and as an immune system enhancer. Mistletoe preparations have been used in the treatment of cancer since l926, when a fermented product, Iscador, was made from the crude pressed juice of the berry, which stimulates the thymus gland and promotes ‘killer cell’ activity and leads to a ‘walling off’ of the tumour.

The prominence of these plants at Christmas may be that they are evergreen, available and attractive, or perhaps the ancients anticipated our need for them on the occasion of enforced gluttony.