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Decorating With Evergreens

Christmas Eve is especially the time for decorating houses and
churches with evergreens, a custom which seems to have come from
heathen times; at least, no one seems to know when it commenced.
Polydore Vergil[40] says:--Trymming of the temples with hangynges,
floures, boughes, and garlondes, was taken of the heathen people,
whiche decked their idols and houses with such array. That it is an
old custom in England to deck houses, churches, etc., at Christ-tide
with evergreens is undoubted--the only question is, how old is it?
Stow, in his Survey, says: 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 Christmass to the people, was torne up and cast 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.

Stow, we see, makes no mention of mistletoe, nor do we find it in old
churchwardens' accounts, because mistletoe was accounted a heathen
plant, on account of its association with the Druids, and not only was
therefore unsuitable to bedeck a place of Christian worship, but the
old rite of kissing beneath it rendered it inadmissible. Still, in
Queen Anne's time, it was recognised as a Christmas decoration, for
Gay in his Trivia has sung--

When Rosemary and Bays, the poet's crown,
Are bawl'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 Laurel green, and sacred MISTLETOE.

The mistletoe is found in several counties in England, but the bulk of
that which we have now at Christ-tide comes from Brittany. There is a
popular belief that it grows on oaks, possibly on account of Druidical
tradition to that effect, but, as a matter of fact, its connection
with that tree in England is very rare, Dr. Ball, in a paper in the
Journal of Botany, only mentioning seven authentic instances of its
growth on the oak tree in this country. It principally makes its
habitat on the apple, poplar, hawthorn, lime, maple, and mountain
ash, and has been found on the cedar of Lebanon and the laurel.

The bay tree was believed to have the property of protection against
fire or lightning. The ivy was considered to prevent intoxication, and
for this reason Bacchus is represented as being crowned with ivy
leaves. The holly was originally the Holy Tree, and tradition says
that, unknown before, it sprang up in perfection and beauty beneath
the footsteps of Christ when he first trod the earth, and that, though
man has forgotten its attributes, the beasts all reverence it, and are
never known to injure it.

The four following carols are all of the fifteenth century:


Holly and Ivy made a great party,
Who should have the mastery
In lands where they go.

Then spake Holly, I am fierce and jolly,
I will have the mastery
In lands where we go.

Then spake Ivy, I am loud and proud,
And I will have the mastery
In lands where we go.

Then spake Holly, and set him down on his knee,
I pray thee, gentle Ivy, say[41] me no villany
In lands where we go.


Alleluia, Alleluia,
Alleluia, now sing we.
Here comes Holly, that is so gent,[42]
To please all men is his intent,

But Lord and Lady of this Hall,
Whosoever against Holly call.

Whosoever against Holly do cry,
In a lepe[43] he shall hang full high.

Whosoever against Holly doth sing,
He may weep and hands wring.


The most worthy she is in town,
He that saith other, doth amiss;
And worthy to bear the crown;
Veni coronaberis.

Ivy is soft and meek of speech,
Against all bale she is bliss;
Well is he that may her reach,
Veni coronaberis.

Ivy is green with colour bright,
Of all trees best she is;
And that I prove well now be right,
Veni coronaberis.

Ivy beareth berries black.
God grant us all His bliss;
For there shall we nothing lack,
Veni coronaberis.


Nay, Ivy, nay, it shall not be, I wis,
Let Holly have the mastery as the manner is.

Holly standeth in the hall, fair to behold,
Ivy stands without the door; she is full sore a cold.
Nay, Ivy, nay, etc.

Holly and his merry men, they dancen and they sing;
Ivy and her maidens, they weepen and they wring.
Nay, Ivy, nay, etc.

Ivy hath a lybe, she caught it with the cold,
So may they all have, that with Ivy hold.
Nay, Ivy, nay, etc.

Holly hath berries, as red as any rose,
The foresters, the hunters, keep them from the does.
Nay, Ivy, nay, etc.

Ivy hath berries, as black as any sloe,
There comes the owl and eats them as she go.
Nay, Ivy, nay, etc.

Holly hath birds, a full fair flock,
The nightingale, the poppinjay, the gentle laverock.
Nay, Ivy, nay, etc.

Good Ivy, good Ivy, what birds hast thou?
None but the owlet that cries How! How!
Nay, Ivy, nay, etc.

It is just as well to be particular as to the quality of the holly
used in Christmas decorations; for on that depends who will be the
ruler of the house during the coming year--the wife or the husband. If
the holly is smooth the wife will get the upper hand, but if it be
prickly, then the husband will gain the supremacy. It is also unlucky
to bring holly into the house before Christmas Eve. And, please, if
you are doing at home any decorations for the church, be sure and make
them on the ground floor, for it is specially unlucky to make anything
intended for use in a church in an upper chamber.

The custom of church decoration may possibly have been suggested by a
verse in the first lesson appointed to be read on Christmas eve--lx.
Isaiah, 13. The glory of Lebanon shall come unto thee, the fir tree,
the pine tree, and the box together, to beautify the place of my
sanctuary. Some years ago, at the commencement of the great Church
revival, the Christmas decorations in churches were very elaborate,
but they are now, as a rule, much quieter, and the only admissible
evergreens are contained in the following distich--

Holly and Ivy, Box and Bay,
Put in the Church on Christmas day.

These decorations, both in church and in private houses, ought to be
kept up until the 1st of February, Candlemas eve, when they should be
burnt--a proceeding which set fire to the hall of Christ Church,
Oxford, in 1719. Herrick gives the following:--


Down with the Rosemary and Bayes,
Down with the Mistleto;
Instead of Holly, now upraise
The greener Box (for show).

The Holly, hitherto did sway;
Let Box now domineere;
Untill the dancing Easter day,
Or Easter's Eve appeare.

The youthfull Box, which now hath grace,
Your houses to renew;
Grown old, surrender must his place,
Unto the crisped Yew.

When Yew is out, then Birch comes in,
And many Flowers beside;
Both of a fresh and fragrant kinne
To honour Whitsuntide.

Green Rushes then, and sweetest Bents,
With cooler Oken boughs;
Come in for comely ornaments,
To readorn the house
Thus times do shift; each thing his turn do's hold;
New things succeed, as former things grow old.

And with Candlemas day ends all festivity connected with Christ-tide.

End now the White-loafe, and the Pye,
And let all sports with Christmas dye.

Next: Legends Of The Nativity

Previous: Christmas Eve In North Notts

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