Deck The Halls

Deck The Halls

by Flo Whitaker

Christmas decorations aren’t just about tinsel and glitter – their religious and cultural significance goes back thousands of years.

When you’re battling the supermarket crowds as you select your Christmas tree and holly wreath, spare a kind thought for your ancient ancestors. They had to venture into the dangerous wild wood in order to fetch their Yule greenery.

The custom of decorating ye olde hearth and home goes back thousands of years. Ancient Romans celebrated the festival of Saturnalia in December with feasting and present giving as they adorned their houses and temples with evergreen garlands. Sounds familiar? As early Christian civilisation advanced across Europe it’s easy to see how the old beliefs and Christian themes became intertwined.

Ancient cultures in the northern hemisphere recognised the importance of the winter solstice. Offerings were made in the hope that daylight would return. Germanic countries held a 12 day festival called ‘Yul’ – the origin of our Twelve Days of Christmas, perhaps? Nordic regions celebrated ‘Yohl’ and St Bede, writing in 8th century Northumbria, mentions ‘Yule Tide’.

Cosseted by electric light and central heating, we can take a casual attitude to the approach of winter, but it’s easy to understand how our ancestors were perturbed by the changing landscape and why they showed reverence towards plants that miraculously remained alive throughout winter. Over time, religious themes became associated with such plants. Blood red holly berries were a symbol of Christ’s crucifixion and the prickly leaves served as a reminder of the crown of thorns. Ivy became associated with themes of stoicism and strength; clinging tenaciously – it survives in all weathers. Most extraordinary of all was mistletoe; a plant that, even now, looks as if it came out of a book of myth and legend. Mistletoe lives between two realms neither in the earth nor the sky. It has no visible roots or means of sustenance, yet remains green all winter – no wonder ancient cultures revered it. Nordic legend praises it as a plant of friendship and peace. If two people met under mistletoe, they were expected to exchange a cordial greeting, or a handshake – or even a kiss…

Christmas in medieval England was frequently an excuse for feasting and entertainment. By the 1640s, frustrated by the gluttonous behaviour of the people, parliament decreed that December 25th should be an ordinary working day. This deeply unpopular legislation did not last long. The Puritan government fell and Christmas festivities were officially resumed in 1660. Queen Charlotte, continuing the custom from her native Germany, had the first Christmas tree in Britain in 1800, but it was an 1848 engraving in the Illustrated London News, depicting Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their children standing around a lavishly decorated tree that really caught the public’s imagination. The shops have been bombarding us with baubles and bling ever since. Happy Christmas!