Decorations have taken a variety of forms, including Christmas trees, Christmas lights, nativity scenes, and evergreens such as garlands, wreaths, mistletoe and holly. Then there is Santa Claus and his associated paraphernalia, as well as all sorts of garlands, glitter and tinsel. But where do all these styles and traditions come from?
Thousands of years ago, pre-Christian man believed that decorating the bushes in winter attracted spirits which were looking for shelter from the icy weather. To take branches into your home meant giving warmth and shelter to these spirits of nature, before releasing them in the early spring in time for the first buds to appear.
From this folklore we inherited two customs-:
1. Using evergreens as decorations in our homes at Christmas
2. The superstition that decorations must be taken down by the end of the twelfth day of Christmas, or bad luck will follow.
After Christian conversion, people had left decorations up for much longer than twelfth night. The Christmas season had ended at Candlemas, the 2nd February, which was much nearer early Spring.
Christian beliefs surfaced in the 6th century, when missionaries were sent to Britain from Rome. St Gregory realised that it was not possible to expect people to convert to Christianity and change their pagan ways and superstitious beliefs overnight, so he instructed his missionaries to make allowances;
‘If the people decorate their temples to Saturn, let them in future still decorate them – but for the festival of Christ’s Birth’.
It is believed that St Augustine, whilst in Britain, followed this rule and converted thousands, at Christmas, to the new teachings of Christianity.
People did still decorate, but as a celebration of the Birth of Jesus Christ, and if some superstitions from their earlier beliefs remained, it did not matter as long as they understood the teachings of Christianity.
The heart-shaped leaves of ivy were said to symbolize Jesus coming to earth, while holly was seen as protection against pagans and witches. Its thorns and red berries held to represent the Crown of Thorns worn by Jesus at the crucifixion and his bloodshed. If we read the hymn “The holly and the ivy”, these sentiments are echoed therein.
Christmas wreaths are designed to prepare Christians for the Advent season. Candles in each window are meant to demonstrate the fact that Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the ultimate light of the world.
For more on the history of decorations, watch this space, there is more to this story than you might have thought…