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 dec
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.