The snow is here, and the wreaths look jolly….

Once again, the Winter Solstice has come and gone. Ever since the 21st December, the days are slowly lengthening. Over 2000 years ago, the ancient winter festivals celebrated around this day (Yule for the Celtic and Norse peoples, and Saturnalia for the Romans), formed a useful backdrop to the rising celebration of the new religion of Christianity. Whatever your religious (or non-religious) persuasion, it is difficult in the modern Western world to miss the ‘decking of the halls’ at this time of year with greenery being seen everywhere.

Evergreen foliage has come to be associated with the joyous celebration of Christmas, with wreaths made from all kinds of evergreen branches, baubles, bows and ribbons hung from everything from the front doors of dwellings to the front of very ‘non-green’ SUVs! The Christmas tree, usually one of the many species of coniferous evergreens, is a universal symbol of the festival. However, it would be wrong to think of this symbol as being an ancient one. The use of a Christmas tree was first noted in the area of present day Estonia, Latvia (ancient Livonia) and Northern Germany, in the 14th and 15th centuries. It became popular in the UK around 1848, only after Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg und Gotha married Queen Victoria (his first cousin), and the tree received the Royal seal of approval.

Here we see a wealth of Christmas wreaths, hanging balls and other decorations outside our local supermarket, typical of these commercial displays seen almost everywhere across New England. The snow is falling, and the display looks very festive. I am a traditionalist, I suppose, in that I still prefer a Yule log and sprigs of holly and ivy. This is a very old tradition, with holly and ivy being used for decorating churches at least as far back as the 15th century. There exists, of course, the much loved carol ‘The Holly and the Ivy’, dated to at least 1710. Also, the delightful Mediaeval ‘Sans Day Carol’, from Cornwall, has similar lyrics (the original Cornish version being ‘Ma gron war’n gelln’); this was collected and transcribed by the noted English folklorist, Cecil James Sharp.

I can remember dark Derbyshire evenings near Christmas, when I accompanied my father to the nearby woods to cut a large branch from a holly tree (usually about 6 feet long) which was then dragged home – sometimes through the snow – and carefully placed in a large wooden barrel and supported by bricks, to form a ‘holly tree’. This was then trimmed in the usual fashion with tinsel and garlands; I especially remember some very fragile early 20th century German glass tree ornaments, and a small toy, a black dog on red, rubber wheels that had earlier been sent to my brother from America, from my godparents! My parents used extra sprigs of holly to decorate picture frames and mouldings around the house. An ancient and pleasing tradition, I think.

Whatever your religious persuasion, I would like to take this opportunity to wish you all much joy, peace and happiness both now, and in the coming year.

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