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The Holly and the Ivy

by Julia Hickey

The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown
Of all the trees that are in the wood
The holly bears the crown.

ornamentFront doors sprout wreaths and red ribbons; florists display gleaming sheathes of holly and pale spikes of mistletoe; fir trees resplendant with lights and baubles fill open spaces by every hearth. Families across the country venture out from the warmth of their homes on wreath-making, garland-making and table decoration workshops like those held at Rufford Abbey in Nottinghamshire to spend an afternoon fashioning sprigs of festive greenery into traditional decorations. The warm glow at the end of such an afternoon has nothing to do with the weather or hands stung by holly prickles. It has much more to do with memories and laughter. Christmas has arrived!

Today decorations appear at the beginning of December, if not earlier, but in times past winter greenery was not allowed over the threshold of many houses until Christmas Eve for fear of ill luck. Even then not all evergreens were welcome. Ivy was used to decorate the exterior of domestic buildings, never the inside. Ironically perhaps, despite being the symbol of Bacchus -- -god of wine and merriment -- ivy did manage to find its way into church buildings where holly and mistletoe didn't. Look carefully at decorative leaf patterns in churches -- you are more likely to find ivy than any of the other evergreen varieties. Westminster Abbey is home to a fine example, as is Southwell Minster in Nottinghamshire where visitors can see a stone goat tucking in to an ivy leaf lunch.

MistletoeMistletoe, by contrast, is rarely seen inside a church even now. Its links with druids and paganism are too strong. An attempt was made to make mistletoe acceptable in the early church. The tale grew that mistletoe was once a full sized tree but when it was used to construct Christ's cross it shrank with shame. The story cut no ice and mistletoe remained firmly outside church boundaries. However, with its supposedly magical properties -- protecting against lightning, bringing good luck, curing disease and granting fertility -- it has always featured in secular festivities. A mistletoe bough was often suspended in the centre of a room or over a doorway. In the eighteenth century the bough was transformed into a 'kissing ball' under which hopeful young women waited for a kiss. The girl who received seven kisses from seven different men would marry one of them within the year. In Victorian times the kissing continued but for every kiss a berry had to be removed and when there were no more berries there were no more kisses.

An opportunity occurs every year to take part in the 200-year-old Mistletoe Auction in the Worcestershire Town of Tenby Wells. Wrap up well to see the bulk of English mistletoe brought and sold on Tuesday 29th November, the 6th and the 13th of December in 2005. The atmosphere is electric as prices rise and fall. People chatter excitedly and old hands comment on the state of the boughs for sale, not to mention the previous summer's weather conditions. Take part in this historic event and soak up the atmosphere. Close your eyes for a minute and listen to the sounds around you. It's not so hard to imagine jeans and waterproofs swapped for long skirts, breeches, shawls and top hats. At the end of the day when everyone has gone nothing remains but the remains of white berries and a few leaves on the ground- until next year.

Holly Holly is also sold at the auction. This, of course, is the plant most commonly associated with Christmas. It made the transition more satisfactorily from a pagan past into the Christian present. It is also said that holly wood was used to construct Christ's cross. The berries the holly bore were once yellow but turned red in remembrance of Christ's blood, whilst the leaves became symbolic of everlasting life. Its pagan past protects from lightning strikes, causes cows to thrive and drives away demons and evil spirits. Take a good look at the hedges that grow around church yards -- chances are that you'll see holly bushes growing alongside yew trees. Yews not only provided wood for English longbows but protected people from unquiet spirits and witches. Old houses often have either a yew tree or a holly bush growing next to the main entrance for protective purposes!

And then of course there are the Christmas trees. Famously, the tree in London's Trafalgar Square is a gift from the people of Oslo in recognition for Britain's role in helping them during World War Two (see Christmas in London.) Today the decorations wouldn't be complete without a Christmas tree taking centre stage. People spend hours searching for exactly the right specimen. However, firs are relative newcomers on England's evergreen decoration scene. It was only when Prince Albert set up a Christmas tree in Windsor Castle in 1841 for his family that the German practice began to spread in England.

Victorian Christmas card The German tradition which Prince Albert remembered from his own childhood is an old one. Martin Luther said that the lights on a Christmas tree reminded him of the starry heavens from which Christ descended at the nativity. The Christmas tree has a number of legends attached to it. One of them states that St Boniface, an English monk, travelling in Germany came upon a pagan festival dedicated to the worship of trees. He felled the tree that was being worshipped and the following morning a fir tree had sprung from the roots. More bloodthirsty versions of the story state that Boniface actually saved a child from being sacrificed. Another story suggests that a poor family took in a child who begged for a night's shelter. The next morning he gave them a fir bough, which promptly burst into flower as soon as it was planted -- a promise of life everlasting. All these legends build upon a pagan past. Druids worshipped trees -- most especially the oak -- and decorated them with fruit and lights. Romans celebrating their own midwinter festivities at Saturnalia also decorated trees with trinkets and candles. One thing is certain: evergreens have always been revered in the long cold days of winter when warmth and the new life of spring is far away.

There remains one more piece of festive greenery to be mentioned. If you visit Glastonbury at the end of the year, look out for the Glastonbury thorn. It's unusual because it flowers twice- once in May and then again at Christmas. The reason? The thorn is said to have sprung from the staff belonging to Joseph of Arimathaea -- the owner of the tomb where Christ's body lay. Joseph arrived in England with eleven followers. The weary band stopped at the end of a long day's journey at a place now known as Wearyall Hill. Joseph's staff threw out roots and immediately began to blossom. Joseph took this as a sign that he should remain in Glastonbury and found a church. The history of the Glastonbury thorn became interwoven with kings when the tradition grew of sending a budding bough to the monarch. Even today the Queen receives a sprig of the hawthorn at Christmas. Sadly for the original thorn, a puritanical roundhead saw paganism and idolatry in the practice of watching for the tree to blossom at Christmas, and chopped it down. Following the restoration of the monarchy, an offshoot of the original thorn was replanted and the tradition of the Glastonbury thorn has continued.

Glastonbury ThornDon't expect to see it flower on the 25th December, though. The English calendar changed by ten days in 1752 when the Gregorian calendar was adopted. The thorn flowers according to the Julian calendar: on January 5, Old Christmas Day. Interestingly, the thorn is of the kind more commonly found in Palestine and Israel -- perhaps it was carried home by a crusader or a merchant or perhaps it really was fetched from distant shores by Joseph of Arimathaea!

Finally, what about the carol The Holly and the Ivy? The holy represents the crown of thorns. The word holly is derived from the Saxon word 'holen' meaning holy, so it has always been an important evergreen plant. The ivy represents the Virgin Mary -- a link to Greek myth, perhaps, that tells the story of a girl who loved Dionysus so much that he placed her into the plant which bears her name, its clinging embrace a reminder of her love. All of which goes to show that history isn't just in the buildings we visit: our history is very much alive in the things we do and the words we use, even if we don't always know it.

More Information:

The Mistletoe Pages

What Does Mistletoe Have To Do With Christmas?
http://www.apsnet.org/online/ feature/mistletoe/

Some places to try your hand at making decorations:

Rufford Ceramic Centre

National Trust Events

Glastonbury Thorn

Julia Hickey is passionate about England's heritage and particularly of Cumbria, where her husband comes from. In between dragging her family around the country to a variety of historic monuments, she works part-time as a senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University. She spends the rest of her week writing. In her spare time, she enjoys walking, dabbling in family history, cross-stitch, tapestry and photography.
Article © 2005 Julia Hickey


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