Custom demised: The Kissing Bush or Bunch

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victorian christmas w treeAdvent signed the start of the preparations for Christmas day and still houses across the county and country chose this day to put up the Christmas decorations and the Christmas tree and lights. One tradition which is probably largely forgotten in the county was the making of “The Kissing Bush, Bunch or Bough”. This was according to Whistler in his work on The English Festival (1947) that this was often an alternative in rural England to the tree.  Ditchfield (1901) in his Old English Customs reports:

“The old “kissing bunch” is still hung in some of the old-fashioned cottage houses of Derbyshire and Cornwall – two wooden hoops, one passing through the other, decked  with evergreen, in the centre of which is hung a “crown” of rosy apples and sprig of mistletoe. This is hung from the central beam of the living-room, and underneath it is much kissing and romping. Later on, the carol-singers stand beneath it and sing God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen.”

Hole (1968) described it as:

“made of two bisecting hoops, the bunch was decorated with holly and ivy, ribbons, baubles, apples, oranges and nuts…mistletoe spray was hung below, slowly revolving in the candle’s draught. A trio of dolls, suggesting the bunch’s pre-Reformation origins also hung from it called ‘Our Saviour’, ‘Mary’ and ‘Joseph’”

A Thomas Ratcliffe, a local antiquarian from Derbyshire  noted in 1906 that:   

“When I was a lad I helped in several successive years to make the kissing bush which always depended from the great beam which ran across the living room and the bunch, or bush, for we used either word, was really an inverted Christmas tree, for it consisted of a round fir tree with the top cut out to the depth of a foot or so and was then hung upside down, the lower branches making it something like a weeping willow as regards shape. The bush ends were decked with springs of holly, well ….bits of coloured paper, bits of glass, little packets of sweets, oranges and apples and anything else which showed colour and gleamed in the fire light and candle light. Then inside the bush, the space made by cutting out the top was put in a box to represent a cradle and in a box a small doll in white swaddling clothes with a short blue petticoat and a red cape. The box was more holly, yew springs and other pieces of evergreen stuff and below all hung down was the best bit of mistletoe that could be got and the kissing bush was complete.”                                                       

In Staffordshire the bunch was hung above five o’clock on Christmas Eve:

“With many a romp and a kiss..and indeed for the next few day or two, kissing was the sole order of things under this bunch, every visitor being kissed and having a kiss. It would appear that now only the mistletoe is put up, perhaps because at Christmas, Mistletoe thought to protect the house from lightning but it was unlucky to bring holly or ivy in rather going against the idea of the kissing bush!”

Humourist Frank Muir notes making a Kissing Bough in his Christmas Customs and Traditions:

“One year my family decided to that a kissing bough might be more fun than the usual tree. Out came the pliers and the wire. Simple craftemenship. As we did not grow either box or rosemary in the garden we chose pagan ivy. This we bound round the wire frame. Next came the seven apples suspended on red ribbons. So far no problems, but where to put it? The hall ceiling was too low to hang a four-foot, round, verdant football. The answer seemed to hang it above the staircase. This entailed climbing a ladder, chiselling the paint out of the joints on the outside of the window overlooking the stairs, and then pushing a five-foot length of wood through the gap between the bottom of the window and the frame. Inside, this piece of wood stuck out over the stairs like a gibbet. Next we threw a some nylon washing line guaranteed breaking-strain of half a ton-essential for our kissing bough-and hauled the mighty structure up into position. With the aid of a step ladder the candles were fixed on. The village shop had run out of little red ones so we had to make do with the leftovers from last year’s power cuts. It really looked rather Christmassy. I sent my wife back up the step ladder to light the candles while I fetched the garden hose from the garage. Then we all stood round and watched the candlelight reflecting off the red apples and the draught from the partly opened window blowing drips of wax on to the dogs. What better way of celebrating Christmas Eve-picking wax out of Afghan hound coats?”

The effort involved in making and suspended made the more convenient single spray of mistletoe more convenient. After all the same activities could be done below it as Ratcliffe again notes:

“In the games of Christmas Eve, the forfeit has to be paid if kissing under the bush, and the kissing couple had to kneel on cushions on either side so as to face each other if kissing was the forfeit to be paid.”

No that sort of custom has never demised!

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One response »

  1. Interested to read about the Kissing Bunch. It is something I make each Christmas.

    As a child (from Derbyshire) I was enchanted by Alison Uttley’s “Little Grey Rabbit’s Christmas”, in which she makes a Kissing Bunch on Christmas Eve and the picture of it (by Margaret Tempest) inspired me to carry on the tradition, albeit adapted. It wouldn’t be Christmas in our house without it.

    ” She tied together little sprays of holly and made a round ball called a Kissing Bunch. She decked it with scarlet crab apples and gilded nuts, all dangling among the glossy green leaves. The she hung it from a hook in the ceiling.

    ..So they gave their Christmas morning kisses under the round Christmas Bunch in the time-honoured way.”

    The illustration can be found on p. 46 of the book.

    Lyn Winstanley

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