Nativity scenes have their origins in 10th-century Rome. They were popularised by St Francis of Assisi from 1223, and quickly spread across Europe. Nowadays they also take performance form at Christmas in Nursery and Primary Schools throughout Britain, raising many a laugh from proud parents and grandparents.
Mistletoe has been used as a decoration for thousands of years. Because people kiss under the mistletoe, it is assumed it is because it is a fertility plant. This is a myth. Mistletoe has a most interesting history.
In the middle ages, a hoop or wreath of evergreens twined around a pliable wood such as willow attaching holly, bay, rosemary, box, and yew would be a symbolic religious decoration in the home or on the doorway. In the centre of the wreath there would be a symbol of the Holy Family or Baby Jesus. Alternatively, a bough of wood decorated with ribbons, gilded nuts, fruits, and mistletoe for its decorative qualities would be used.
The ‘Holy Bough’ was left hanging from a beam inside the house. The local priest would bless the boughs in his parish at a special ceremony. It was the custom to embrace under this bough, including any visitor who came to the house over the Christmas Season, as a symbol of love and friendship. However, in 1647, during the Civil War and Interregnum, the Puritan, Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, banned Christmas and all its associations with the High Church and Catholicism, and thus the Holy Boughs were banned too.
This didn’t go down too well. Some Catholics in rural areas risked punishment by death allowing a recusant priest to bless their secret bough. These boughs took the clandestine format of herb-drying and understated decoration, so as not to attract attention. Secretly, the occupants still exchanged a symbolic embrace under the boughs.
Although this ban only lasted until 1660 and the return of the monarchy, many traditions did not return as before but remained as country customs. By the 18th century the ‘Holy Bough’ had become known as the ‘Holly Bough’. The quick kiss under it is now largely a secular tradition rather than as a religious symbol. Furthermore, it became known as the ‘Mistletoe Bough’ or the ‘Kissing’ Bunch’!
Since the 19th century, the poinsettia or ‘Christmas Rose’, a native plant from Mexico, has been associated with Christmas. Other popular seasonal plants include holly, mistletoe, red amaryllis and Christmas cactus. Along with a Christmas tree–usually a Norwegian spruce–the interior of a home may be decorated with these plants, foil garlands and other foliage.
During the second world war, Britain was extremely short on anything imported. Electric Christmas tree lights were definitely out of the price pocket of working class people. Even Christmas trees were in short supply, as excess timber had been used for the war effort and not frivolous decoration. Housewives turned their imagination into ‘making do’and using scrubbing brushes, pipe cleaners, coat hangers, and the oddest of household items to make decorations and hang home-made paper chains on.
Nowadays, the outside of houses may be decorated with hundreds of lights, including illuminated sleighs, snowmen and other Christmas figures. But Christmas for children is not complete without the ubiquitous figure of Santa Claus–a derivation of St Nicholas- -who is everywhere; in shops, garden centres and illuminated in thousands of British homes, inside and out!
So now, next time you decorate the tree, hang up the mistletoe or “deck the halls with boughs of holly”, maybe you will think and understand where it all started.
And Finally… MERRY CHRISTMAS!