At the time of writing, it’s December 16th. That means most of us have put up decs – though some busy folk/lazy folk/me last year will be decking their halls this year. In this latest adaptation from my Christmas history book, we’ll look at why we put up what we put up.
The oldest Christmas decorations are still there today. The Northern European Yule-makers put evergreens on the festive map – since they were just soooo good at not dying. And in a landscape that was snowy and lacking much sun, not dying was impressive.
As well as the fir tree, other plants like holly, ivy and mistletoe became popular adornments – their rebellion against the season giving the impression of special powers of fertility.
The Romans were a classy lot, so they brought their evergreens inside the home and decorated accordingly – a sprig here, a shrub there. Free decorations! Nature provided.
THE HOLLY & THE IVY:
…of all the trees that in are in the wood, you had to put up that one… (to paraphrase the song and Casablanca at the same time). The holly represented the male (something to do with the berries) and the ivy the female. Whichever plant you hung on your doorway theoretically governed which gender might rule the house that year, so be quick to put up yours. Holly’s sharp edges gave it extra evil-repelling signicance too (even evil hates being pricked by shrubbery, which may be why so many supervillains wear gloves).
The church has fallen in and out of love with this evergreenery over the years. The plants were banned for some time, so they became simple decorations purely for the home. At other times Christianity has claimed holly back again, the thorns representing Christ’s crown of thorns and the red berries his blood. To this day, the Danish word for holly is “kristtjørn” – “Christ thorn”.
We might not put much fruit up now (although the odd orange or even apple might make some people’s Christmas wreaths), but our ancestors used to – and it’s the coloured fruit that we’re representing with tinsel and coloured Christmas lights.
Germany in particular put apples and nuts on their tree, plus gingerbreads, sweets, even sweetmeats… because who doesn’t love meat on a tree?
In Nuremberg in 1610, a new Christmas decoration was unveiled: tinsel. Shredded strips of beaten “fool’s gold” silver were draped around wealthy homes, though it was very expensive and far heavier than our modern equivalents. Other materials appeared over the years between the silver and our present-day PVC, though unfortunately they were a bit flammable next to Christmas candles.
THE CHRISTMAS BUNCH:
From Scandinavian Yule to Roman Saturnalia then Christian Christmas, we’ve always liked hanging evergreens inside our front doors. In England, Cornish households had a ‘Cornish bush’ or Christmas bunch’, or ‘kissing bough’: all different names for a globe of greenery. It’s like the familiar mistletoe sprig, except two intersecting hoops support a ball of fruit, nuts, evergreens, ribbons and even a candle (watch that ribbon). The bunch used to include models of Mary, Joseph and Jesus, underneath which the local priest greeted house-holders with a holy kiss. Post-Reformation, holy dolls were seen to be a little idol-worshippy, so the models vanished, but the mistletoe kiss stuck. Get off!
Meanwhile on the outside of the door, there’s yet MORE greenery, like the Advent wreath. Popular in Germany and based on ancient Roman decoration, it became cropped up all over Europe: an evergreen circle of life with four candles (no, not handles for forks) to be lit each Sunday in Advent, then possibly a fifth on Christmas Day. The wreath we keep on our doors has lost the candles – the flames never lasted long in December weather anyway.
Again from Germany, coloured paper decorations were popular, and imported to England by Prince Albert in the Victorian age. German families were also fond of glass beads on a string, bearing a resemblance to today’s wired Christmas lights – and at least if one blew, you didn’t have to change the lot.
Thomas Edison marketed lightbulbs from 1879, and three years later his employee Edward Johnson used them in a string of lights to decorate the family Christmas tree – in good ol’ American red, white, and blue. They were their own advertisement, illuminating his window for his neighbours to see. What will those crazy Edison employees think of next?
Well, flashing lights. Johnson’s neighbours were blown away. Not literally – in fact these lights slowly helped stop the all-too-frequent fires courtesy of the pretty yet unfortunate combination of flammable trees, candles, and ornate paper.
Elsewhere and apparently unknowing of this, telephonist Ralph Morris was inspired by the lights flickering on his switchboard as people dialled in. What a perfect addition to the Christmas decorations, he thought – and safer than candles. His son had recently suffered burns, and a decade earlier a Chicago hospital had burned to the ground due to decorative candles on a flammable tree. In 1908, insurance companies tried to ban Christmas candles for this very reason.
Meanwhile in Britain… why do we call them ‘fairy lights’, and no one else seems to? Well in a third instance, and away from Christmas, the Savoy Theatre became the world’s first building to be lit entirely by electricity in 1881, thanks to Sir Joseph Swan and his incandescent lightbulbs. For the Savoy’s Gilbert and Sullivan opera Iolanth, Swan went a step further, and kitted out the fairy characters with miniature lights. Very impressive, and very catchy – so ‘fairy lights’ caught on, in Britain at least.
All of this is from my new book – except the fairy lights bit. I found that bit out just after the book was published. Grrrr. Yes. I know. Something for the second edition…