Christmas Musings – How wonderful the evergreen!

Rhapsodised Fanny Price, the one Jane Austen heroine who was seriously interested in gardening rather than just gardens. Though I am not going to talk about her here (though I might when I come to talk about Christmas presents) rather I want to consider Christmas decorations.

In the past, everyone agrees and in this I think that everyone is right, Christmas decorations consisted of evergreen vegetation. A helpful list was supplied by Robert Herrick in the seventeenth century, in a poem concerning the taking down of the decorations;

DOWN with the rosemary, and so

Down with the bays and mistletoe ;

Down with the holly, ivy, all,

Wherewith ye dress’d the Christmas Hall

Possibly the use of evergreen vegetation was of pre-Christian origin but sadly there is no actual evidence for this. Classical writers say that mistletoe was venerated by the Druids, but make no mention of any particular season. However what is clear is that by the middle ages evergreen shrubs had become closely associated with Christmas. In the magical poem Gawain and the Green Knight, when the knight appeared at the Christmas celebrations at Camelot;

he held in one hand a holly branch, that is greatest in green when groves are bare.

The use of evergreen vegetation continued at Christmas after the Reformation, and the decorated hall was a favourite image for nineteenth century writers on the ‘old fashioned Christmas’. As the eighteenth century progressed decorations also disappeared, but gradually. Fashionable society seemed to have no interest in Christmas decorations, and by the end of the century only tokens might be found.

These fashionable ladies have just used holly in flower arrangements, a tiny token of the season.

In more rural areas decorations continued, in this welcoming Inn there is holly in the window, and a bunch of mistletoe hanging from the ceiling. Mistletoe, in the form of a Mistletoe or Kissing Bough, often features in images of this period. The term ‘Mistletoe Bough’ seems to have gone out of favour in the nineteenth century after it was used as the title of a popular, and rather gruesome, Victorian Song.

The popular tradition of kissing under the mistletoe continued, or evolved, in the eighteenth century and commentators seemed to associate it with servants and the lower classes. There were numerous illustrations of what were invariably called ‘Christmas gambols’, held in the servants hall. These ranged from the comparatively decorous,

To the decidedly indecorous ( though on must admit that Rowlandson was an early advocate of the ‘free the nipple’ campaign, if his other drawings are anything to go by).

As the revival of Christmas began in the nineteenth century evergreens were welcomed back into the houses of the fashionable, other decoration in wood and glass soon followed, frequently made in Germany, and by the end of the century most of the decorations we know had been invented.

And even the pagan mistletoe, of the disreputable Christmas Gambols, was brought up from the servant’s hall and rehabilitated.

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Filed under Christmas Musings, Regency, Victorian

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