We have seen that the Christmas-tree may be a development, partly at least, from the custom of decorating buildings with evergreens at the New Year, and that such decorations were common throughout the Roman Empire. Some further consideration may now be given to the subject of Christmas decorations in various lands. In winter, when all is brown and dead, the evergreens are manifestations of the abiding life within the plant-world, and they may well have been used as sacramental means of contact with the spirit of growth and fertility, threatened by the powers of blight. Particularly precious would be plants like the holly, the ivy, and the mistletoe, which actually bore fruit in the winter-time.
In spite of ecclesiastical condemnations of Kalends decorations—as late as the sixth century the capitula of Bishop Martin of Braga forbid the adorning of houses with laurels and green trees—the custom has found its way even into churches, and nowhere more than in England. At least as far back as the fifteenth century, according to Stow's “Survay of London,” it was the custom at Christmas for “every man's house, as also the parish churches,” to be “decked with holm, ivy, bays, and whatsoever the season of the year afforded to be green. The conduits and standards in the streets were likewise garnished.” Many people of the last generation will remember the old English mode of decoration—how sprigs of holly and yew, stuck into holes in the high pews, used to make the churches into miniature forests. Only upon the mistletoe does a trace of the ecclesiastical taboo remain, and even that is not universal, for at York Minster, for instance, some was laid upon the altar.
English popular custom has connected particular plants with the winter festival in a peculiarly delightful way; at the mere mention of holly or mistletoe the picture of Christmas with its country charm rises to the mind—we think of snowy fields and distant bells, of warm hearths and kindly merrymaking.
It is no wonder that the mistletoe has a special place in Christmas decorations, for it is associated with both Teutonic myth and Celtic ritual. It was with mistletoe that the beloved Balder was shot, and the plant played an important part in a Druidic ceremony described by Pliny. A white-robed Druid climbed a sacred oak and cut the mistletoe with a golden sickle. As it fell it was caught in a white cloth, and two white bulls were then sacrificed, with prayer. The mistletoe was called “all-healer” and was believed to be a remedy against poison and to make barren animals fruitful. The significance of the ritual is not easy to find. Pliny's account, Dr. MacCulloch has suggested, may be incomplete, and the cutting of the mistletoe may have been a preliminary to some other ceremony—perhaps the felling of the tree on which it grew, whose soul was supposed to be in it, or perhaps the slaying of a representative of the tree-spirit; while the white oxen of Pliny's time may have replaced a human victim.
It is interesting to find that the name “all-healer” is still given to the mistletoe in Celtic speech, and that in various European countries it is believed to possess marvellous powers of healing sickness or averting misfortune.
It is hard to say exactly what is the origin of the English “kissing under the mistletoe,” but the practice would appear to be due to an imagined relation between the love of the sexes and the spirit of fertility embodied in the sacred bough, and it may be a vestige of the licence often permitted at folk-festivals. According to one form of the English custom the young men plucked, each time they kissed a girl, a berry from the bough. When the berries were all picked, the privilege ceased.
Sometimes a curious form, reminding one both of the German Christmas-tree and of the Krippe, is taken by the “kissing bunch.” Here is an account from Derbyshire:—“The ‘kissing bunch’ is always an elaborate affair. The size depends upon the couple of hoops—one thrust through the other—which form its skeleton. Each of the ribs is garlanded with holly, ivy, and sprigs of other greens, with bits of coloured ribbons and paper roses, rosy-cheeked apples, specially reserved for this occasion, and oranges. Three small dolls are also prepared, often with much taste, and these represent our Saviour, the mother of Jesus, and Joseph. These dolls generally hang within the kissing bunch by strings from the top, and are surrounded by apples, oranges tied to strings, and various brightly coloured ornaments. Occasionally, however, the dolls are arranged in the kissing bunch to represent a manger-scene.... Mistletoe is not very plentiful in Derbyshire; but, generally, a bit is obtainable, and this is carefully tied to the bottom of the kissing bunch, which is then hung in the middle of the house-place, the centre of attention during Christmastide.”
Kissing under the mistletoe seems to be distinctively English. There is, however, a New Year's Eve custom in Lower Austria and the Rhaetian Alps that somewhat resembles our mistletoe bough practices. People linger late in the inns, the walls and windows of which are decorated with green pine-twigs. In the centre of the inn-parlour hangs from a roof-beam a wreath of the same greenery, and in a dark corner hides a masked figure known as “Sylvester,” old and ugly, with a flaxen beard and a wreath of mistletoe. If a youth or maiden happens to pass under the pine wreath Sylvester springs out and imprints a rough kiss. When midnight comes he is driven out as the representative of the old year.
There are traces in Britain of the sacredness of holly as well as mistletoe. In Northumberland it is used for divination: nine leaves are taken and tied with nine knots into a handkerchief, and put under the pillow by a person who desires prophetic dreams. For this purpose smooth leaves (without prickles) must be employed, and it is to be noted that at Burford in Shropshire smooth holly only was used for the Christmas decorations. Holly is hated by witches, but perhaps this may be due not to any pre-Christian sanctity attached to it but to the association of its thorns and blood-red berries with the Passion—an association to which it owes its Danish name, Kristdorn.
In some old English Christmas carols holly and ivy are put into a curious antagonism, apparently connected with a contest of the sexes. Holly is the men's plant, ivy the women's, and the carols are debates as to the respective merits of each. Possibly some sort of rude drama may once have been performed. Here is a fifteenth-century example of these carols:—
The sanctity of Christmas house-decorations in England is shown by the care taken in disposing of them when removed from the walls. In Shropshire old-fashioned people never threw them away, for fear of misfortune, but either burnt them or gave them to the cows; it was very unlucky to let a piece fall to the ground. The Shropshire custom was to leave the holly and ivy up until Candlemas, while the mistletoe-bough was carefully preserved until the time came for a new one next year. West Shropshire tradition, by the way, connects the mistletoe with the New Year rather than with Christmas; the bough ought not to be put up until New Year's Eve.
In Sweden green boughs, apparently, are not used for decoration, but the floor of the parlour is strewn with sprigs of fragrant juniper or spruce-pine, or with rye-straw. The straw was probably intended originally to bring to the house, by means of sacramental contact, the wholesome influences of the corn-spirit, though the common people connect it with the stable at Bethlehem. The practice of laying straw and the same Christian explanation are found also in Poland and in Crivoscia. In Poland before the cloth is laid on Christmas Eve, the table is covered with a layer of hay or straw, and a sheaf stands in the corner. Years ago straw was also spread on the floor. Sometimes it is given to the cattle as a charm and sometimes it is used to tie up fruit-trees.
Dr. Frazer conjectures that the Swedish Yule straw comes in part at least from the last sheaf at harvest, to which, as embodying the corn-spirit, a peculiar significance is attached. The Swedish, like the Polish, Yule straw has sundry virtues; scattered on the ground it will make a barren field productive; and it is used to bind trees and make them fruitful. Again the peasant at Christmas will sit on a log and throw up Yule straws one by one to the roof; as many as lodge in the rafters, so many will be the sheaves of rye at harvest.
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