Thursday, December 11, 2008

Decking the Halls

Evergreens were powerful pagan symbols because, at a time of year when most plants were dead, they remained green and even bore fruit. Nevertheless, it was considered bad luck to bring evergreens into the house, or to decorate, before Christmas Eve. Furthermore, Christmas greenery had to be taken down on Twelfth Night (Epiphany) Jan 6th. There is some dispute, however, about disposal. In some regions of Britain, the evergreens were fed to cattle because it was considered unlucky to throw Christmas greenery on the refuse heap or burn it. In others, unmarried women supervised the burning. A steady flame meant a steady husband in their future; a sputtering fire portended an ill-tempered mate.

Fir Branches
During the Middle Ages, Europeans hung fir treetops upside down in their homes to symbolize the Holy Trinity and evoke a blessing on the house. Brits followed a different tradition. They wove hoops of ash, willow or hazel and placed figurines of the Holy Family in the center. These “sacrementals” were then blessed by a priest and hung up. Visitors would embrace their host/hostess beneath the wreath as a demonstration of goodwill.
After the Reformation, sacrementals were abandoned and plain old evergreens branches were hung instead. It may have been around this time that the pagan symbol of peace—mistletoe—was added. Thus was born the kissing bough.

Kissing Bough
To the Romans, a kiss beneath the mistletoe ensured a couple’s fertility. The custom of the man plucking a white berry with each kiss and giving it to the woman is thought to have been a symbolic promise of him giving her a child. Mistletoe berries were carried by ladies who wished to conceive. Unmarried women slept with mistletoe beneath their pillow so they could dream about their future husbands.

Before the advent of the Christmas tree, kissing boughs were central to holiday decorating. During the Regency they were simple structures, nothing more than a branch of mistletoe tied up with ribbon and hung from the ceiling or doorway. Not until the mid-19th century did the kissing bough become an elaborately decorated ball.

Nativity Scene
St. Francis of Assisi was the first to create a three-dimensional nativity scene. In 1220, he set up a straw-filled manger between a live donkey and ox. Three years later, he commissioned an inanimate nativity and had it erected in a cave near Greccio, Italy where he held Christmas Eve mass.
How popular crèches were during the Regency is difficult to ascertain. Like so many traditions banned during the Reformation, nativity scenes no doubt fell out of popularity until the Christmas revival of the Victorian Era.

Yule log
The custom of burning the massive trunk of an oak tree this time of year predates the birth of Christ. The tradition came to Britain with the Vikings, to whom the burning of the Yule log was a symbol of the sun’s rebirth. When the church established Christmas in the 4th century, however, fire came to represent the Son of God.

Nevertheless, superstitions about the burning of the Yule log persisted. A piece of the previous year’s log had to be used to kindle the new one. Ashes from the Yule log were mixed into livestock feed to make the animals fertile, dropped down wells to assure good water, scattered over fields and the roots of fruit trees to assure a bountiful harvest. If the Yule fire went out before it’s time, bad luck would be visited upon the house. A headless shadow cast by the Yule fire meant that person would die in the new year.

Jane Austen never referred to a Yule log in any of her books, but she and other Regency writers did wax enthusiastic about a great blazing “Christmas fire.” At a time when coal was the popular fuel and there was no central heating, this extravagant expenditure of resources likely gave everyone a great deal of "comfort and joy."

Christmas/Yule candle
Fire represented the rebirth of the sun to pagans. The Romans decorated their Saturnalia holly wreaths with clay figurines and candles. They lit tall waxed papers as votive offerings to Saturn. For the Vikings and the Celts, the winter solstice was a fire festival. They burned great bonfires on the hills to drive away the darkness.

With the advent of Christianity, people placed candles in the window at Christmas time to light the Christ Child’s way to their home. A single large Yule candle came to represent Christ himself as the light of the world.

In 1817, it was customary to place the eighteen-inch Yule candle on the dinner table Christmas Eve. The head of the household would light it after dusk and, once lit, it couldn’t be moved. When the time came to extinguish the candle, it had to be snuffed, not blown out. The Yule candle was lit every day during the Twelve Days of Christmas. Like the Yule log, a piece was saved to light the Yule candle the following year.

1 comment:

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