Custom demised: Taking down Christmas decorations on Candlemas Eve

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fire

What? Surely it’s Twelfth Night or Twelfth Day. Indeed, whilst that debate rages about….and some people take them down on Boxing Day I hear. But the real debate is Twelfth Night or Candlemas?.

This debate certainly is quite germane with me, who sits here, composing this post on the 25th January in the shadow of a fully decorated Christmas tree! Why I’ll explain in a minute. However, when discussing the fact I still had the tree up on Plough Monday, Frank a folklorist and local Historian said ‘You’ll get back luck then’ to which I replied with the following fact from what I had discovered researching customs, that Christmas decorations were to be burnt at Candlemas north of the Trent of Nottingham, where it is said that candles must be thrown away.

He was apparently unaware of the custom, but delving into an array of customs it appears that the Northerners were not the only ones exempt! Further research suggests that it is a custom which has waxed and then waned over the centuries to such a point that no-one would be aware of it largely. Certainly in the 17th century the custom prevailed as noted by the poem ‘Ceremony upon Christmas Eve’ written by Robert Herrick in 1648. He records:

“Down with the rosemary, and so,

Down with the baies, and mistletoe

Down with the holly, ivie and all,

Wherewith ye drest the Christmas Hall,

That so the superstitious find

No one least branch there left behind;

For look, how many leaves there be

Neglected, there (maids trust to me)

So many goblins you shall see.”

 

The poem was adapted by Edgar Pittman into Candlemas Eve Carol and similarly the carol Farewell to Christmas notes:

“Here have I dwelled with more & less
From Hallowtide till Candlemas,
And now must I from your hens pass;
Now have good day”

Herrick in his Upon Candlemas Day poem also wrote:

“End now the white loaf and the pie, and let all sports with Christmas die.”

Despite this the custom is largely forgot. This is surprising considering how widespread the observance was.  Raven (1977) records it in Staffordshire:

“in the mid-nineteenth century, the Christmas decorations used at Stone Mill were taken to the cowsheds and fed to the cattle to prevent them ‘casting’ their calves.”

Palmer (1976) noted that this was the tradition too in Warwickshire, as was it in Worcestershire:

“It is unlucky to keep Christmas holly about the house after Candlemas Day, as the Evil One will then come himself and pull it down.”

The custom would indeed appear to be commonly encountered in the west far more than in the North.  In Burne’s () Shropshire, she was told by a servant that holly and ivy was taken down on Candlemas Eve so as to put snow-drops in their place.  In 1864 it is also recorded in Suffolk:

“If every scrap of Christmas decoration is not removed from the church before Candlemas-day there will be a death within a year in the family occupying the pew where a leaf or berry is left.”

This latter belief still associates with our modern date. Udal (1922) in his Dorsetshire folklore records too:

 “Candlemas Day or Eve – was the great occasion in Dorsetshire, as in other counties, when all Christmas decorations, such as holy, mistletoe, and evergreens, should be taken down…but care should be taken not to throw away as ordinary rubbish, but should entirely destroyed in the fire. If otherwise, it portends death or misfortune to some one of the household before another year is out.”

Yet despite this Hardy’s poem Burning the Holly still favours Twelfth Night but its date of 1898 agrees with Roud (2004) that opinion was changing by the turn of the 20th century. However even in the United States, in Williamsburg,  a 18th century poem records:

“When New Year’s Day is past and gone;
Christmas is with some people done;
But further some will it extend,
And at Twelfth Day their Christmas end.
Some people stretch it further yet,
At Candlemas they finish it.
The gentry carry it further still
And finish it just when they will;
They drink good wine and eat good cheer
And keep their Christmas all the year.”

 It makes good sense as Candlemas was the Feast of the Purification, the last feast which signified the baby Jesus’s acceptance at the Temple. Being no longer a baby in a Manger but a baptised child. Furthermore as this was a lean time of the year agriculturally it would have little impact. It may also be significant to note that Candlemas Eve was and is Imbolc, the old Pagan celebration and perhaps taking down before may have been a way of distancing from the pagan past.

 Why the change of date?

Is it possible that the authorities wanting to discourage the festivities which associated with the date, especially the Lord of Misrule, established this date as the one when Christmas officially finished and everyone went back to work, especially as in the 1800s communities moved from largely agricultural to industrial.

 Burn the lot!

The majority of correspondent’s state that these decorations should then be burnt and if not bad luck would befall anyone who did not. Roud (2004) notes that there is no geographical spread of the custom and that there was more likely to be disagreement due to changing attitudes over time. He refers to records burning the decorations recorded as far back as the eleventh century but the earliest anti-burning being from 1866.  I’m quite sure the family would want me to burn the decorations though, especially the large ‘plastic’ tree. Burning would bring more than bad luck….but a deadly cocktail of chemicals

Well perhaps it’s not quite a demised custom, I inadvertently have done so and so I gather do some churches, mainly Catholic, although I have not heard of any from Britain.

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