Christmas decorations started appearing in the streets, shops and house windows throughout December, but I’m pleased to report that I only spotted one house with Christmas lights ablaze before November was out. While Christmas preparations seem to start earlier each year, William Howitt, in his Rural Life of England published in 1840, reports that Christmas Eve was traditionally the day when the house was decorated.
Howitt describes Christmas as “the festival of the fireside; the most domestic and heartfelt carnival of the year”. Homes from stately houses to cottages were enthusiastically decorated, not with shop-bought ornaments of tinsel and foil but with the natural decorations of the English countryside. “Holly, ivy and mistletoe appear in vast quantities in the markets, and almost every housekeeper…furnishes herself with a quantity to decorate her windows”.
Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable claims that the origin of Christmas decorations lies not with Christian celebrations but in the Roman feast of Saturnalia, held in December, which Brewer describes as a “time of licensed disorder and misrule”. But Folkard, writing in 1892, suggests that the practice of decorating houses with mistletoe and holly “is undoubtedly of Druidic origin…[when] the houses were decked with boughs in order that the spirits of the forest might seek shelter among them during the bleak winds and frosts of winter”. But the foliage had to be put out of doors before Candlemas (2 February) to allow the spirits to return to the forest ready for the spring. This belief, transferred from Candlemas to Twelfth Night, is said to be the origin of the superstition that it is unlucky to leave decorations up after Twelfth Night.
In fact, the period around the winter solstice, with its associated use of evergreen decorations, has been celebrated within many traditions. For both agricultural and hunter gatherer cultures, understanding the cycle of the year was critical to their survival, and winter was the hardest time of all. So the lengthening of days was something to be celebrated, and in the dead of winter, evergreen trees were a reminder that life continues and would return in spring.
Holly, in particular, was associated with the winter solstice. The holly king and the oak king are, respectively, the god of dark and god of light, ruling over the solar year. In early mummers’ plays the holly king fights the oak king for the hand of a fair maiden and is victorious at the summer solstice, ruling over the six months of the declining sun. But at the midwinter solstice he is defeated by the oak king, who rules for the following six months of lengthening days.