Jane Moore takes a closer look at traditional Christmas greenery
Christmas is all about tradition, those age old rituals and customs that take you right back to your childhood and have been around for ever, or so it seems. I like real Christmas trees, twinkly lights, carols and mince pies – especially the mince pies. But for me it’s all about the tradition and that doesn’t mean any new-fangled designer decorations of blue and silver. They’re so cold and and frosty when Christmas is all about the warm glows of gold, red and green. Holly, ivy and mistletoe are about as ancient decorations as you can get, but there are also the newer ideas such as Christmas roses, Christmas box and even the good old Christmas tree isn’t as old as you might think.
It all starts with the tree. The tree becomes the focal point of many a British living room for a couple of weeks in December – rather than – or perhaps as well as the TV. You would be forgiven for thinking, as most people do, that Prince Albert brought the tradition from Germany when he married Victoria. Actually they merely revived and popularised a tradition that started in Georgian times at the Royal Court. I like a nice Nordmann fir if I can afford it as they’re lovely and chunky. They also don’t drop their needles anything like the Norway spruce which is the classic, green Christmas tree with a lovely pine scent. Keep them outside for as long as possible to reduce the needle drop.
I’m always on the lookout for some good holly with berries in the run up to Christmas – if it’s been a cold autumn it’s often in short supply as the birds have eaten the fruit. Failing that a jazzy sprig or two of variegated holly may not be quite traditional but looks lovely tucked on top of picture frames. Traditionally the prickly holly represents the crown of thorns Jesus wore, the red fruits the drops of blood, and Scandinavians refer to holly as Christ Thorn. In folklore it’s also regarded as warding off evil fairies from entering your house and running amok and it’s bad luck to bring it into the house before Christmas Eve.
In Germany ivy is only ever used to decorate the outside of the house and I can’t think that we use much indoors ourselves, except perhaps for the odd candle decoration. A piece tied to a church was also said to protect it from lightning which sounds like an amalgamation of old pagan tradition with Christian.
This strange plant is said to hark back to the Druids and ancient winter solstice rituals although there is little real evidence of this. Nor is it banned from churches as is popularly believed too. But nonetheless, I think that, as mistletoe is so strongly linked with Christmas and the New Year that there must be some dimly remembered folk history associating mistletoe and the deep winter.
The beautiful winter flowering Helleborus niger flowers in the depths of winter and that makes any plant rather special. Add to that classic simplicity and good looks plus a somewhat shy flowering habit and you have a plant that made Victorian head gardeners rise to the challenge of making it flower for Christmas. These head gardeners lifted entire plants of Helleborus niger in September and brought them under glass to force them into flower for Christmas Day. Not easy as, despite their name, Christmas roses usually don’t flower until January or February.
I’m a huge fan of Sarcococca or Christmas box. An innocently diminutive glossy evergreen ball for most of the year, it comes into its own in the dark gloomy days of winter, flowering its socks off with such a strong scent of vanilla sweetness that even tattooed lorry drivers delivering to The Priory kitchen are stopped in their tracks, sniffing appreciatively as they pass a nondescript ball of greenery. Brave guests who venture into the garden in the winter always notice the Sarcococca shrubs we have dotted about strategically. There are four species and they’re all good, especially as front garden path plants where they’ll sit unremarkably all year until you need a lift as you dash into the warmth of the house.
No, not the chocolate kind! That’s just a vestige of what must have been a lovely tradition. The burning of a Yule log hails from Scandinavia originally but goes back way before medieval times in this country. The Yule log was an entire tree, carefully selected and felled and brought into the house with great ceremony. The biggest end would be placed into the hearth while the rest of the tree stuck out into the room. It would be lit from the remains of the previous year’s log, which had been kept especially for this purpose, and then the log would be fed into the fire throughout the 12 days of Christmas, retaining the last piece for the following Christmas. It’s easy to see why this has died out: central heating, carpets, and smaller houses. But there’s something lovely about the idea of this log heating hearth and home throughout the festive period that I guess we’ve tried to commemorate in the chocolate version.
The real wreath of foliage and fruits is one tradition that seems to have revived somewhat in the past few years as workshops and whatnot spring up in December at farm shops and florists. The word comes from the Old English ‘writhen’ meaning to writhe or twist and wreaths as we know them today probably started out as Kissing Boughs, evolving into door wreaths and mistletoe bunches. It really is easy to make a jolly looking wreath or buy a basic wreath and decorate it with pine cones, fruit, ribbons and bundles of cinnamon sticks. It’s festive and fun to do and does make you feel very Christmassy.