Living in an old Georgian house I felt the need to establish my old customs as befits it; so at Christmas I have revived the Kissing Bush and placed garlands of evergreen materials over the fire places and up the stairwells. It is a mammoth – and frustrating – task so I feel empathy for the volunteers at Cornwall’s Cotehele House who since the 1950s have established their own – and far more complicated garland.
46,000 dried flowers grown on the house estate are tied together into one hundred feet of rope. Although it takes the staff and volunteers two weeks to construct in reality it takes all year, seeds are ordered in December, grow through spring and summer, picked and dried in the autumn ready for its November construction. In its construction are 60 evergreen pittosporum tree cuttings as its base, with grasses, statice, helichrysum, acrolineum and helipterum being added to it.
In 2013 a BBC news webpage National Trust’s Cotehele creating 90ft flower garland recorded:
“Gardeners at a stately home are creating a garland that is more than 90ft (27m) long, following a bumper year for flowers.
Garlands have been made at Cotehele, in south-east Cornwall, since the 1950s and are normally about 60ft (18m) long.
David Bouch, head gardener at the National Trust property, said that more than 40,000 flowers were collected compared to an average of 22,000.
He added that “brilliant growing season” had prompted the increase.
Mr Bouch said he believed the garland was the longest created at a National Trust property.
“Normally, loops go along the centre of the Great Hall, but because of the bumper crop an additional 33ft (10m) of garland will also frame the door,” he said.”
The result is indeed impressive and unique and attracts visitors far and wide to observe it as it sways across the old hall cafe. It certainly puts my efforts to shame.
When I grew up you one way you knew it was coming up to Christmas because BBC children’s TV show Blue Peter would first show you, with candle, tinsel and coat hangers and then light each week – an advent crown. At the time I wondered why they did this: we just put up a Christmas tree, lights and if we remembered lit an advent candle or opened windows on our advent calendars (minus chocolate)
What I was unaware of is that Blue Peter’s advent crown was their interpretation of the advent wreath – an evergreen circle with four candles and sometimes a fifth central one – the lighting of which would mark the Sundays until Christmas. Tradition would thus light the first one on Advent Sunday, usually the last Sunday in November – although Blue Peter did it on Monday of course- if a central one was included this was lit on Christmas Day.
Christmas Advent -ure
Each week a Blue Peter presenter would then light a candle a ceremonial recognition of the run up to the big day. But why did they do it? I knew of no families who did so, no churches and no schools so why did Blue Peter do it?
Usually when the discussion of greenery is introduced to churches the main claim for its introduction tends to be that it is a pagan custom. Interesting the view is extolled by Catholiceducation.org as follows:
“The Advent wreath is part of our long-standing Catholic tradition. However, the actual origins are uncertain. There is evidence of pre-Christian Germanic peoples using wreathes with lit candles during the cold and dark December days as a sign of hope in the future warm and extended-sunlight days of Spring. In Scandinavia during Winter, lighted candles were placed around a wheel, and prayers were offered to the god of light to turn “the wheel of the earth” back toward the sun to lengthen the days and restore warmth.”
However there is no evidence of such a pagan origin nor dare I say ‘long standing Catholic tradition’. However, it would appear to be a clear Protestant origin as Mary Jane Haemig in her 2005 ‘The Origin and Spread of the Advent Wreath’ in Lutheran Quarterly states. Unlike many customs such as the similar Christingle, we even have a name and date. D. Sattler (ed.) Der Adventkranz und seine Geschichte from 1997 states that head of the Rauhe Haus, a Hamburg city mission, Johann Heinrich Wichern, was aware he was starting something new when in 1839 he created the first advent candle ring with the greenery being added to make the first wreath in 1860. This was different to modern crowns by having many small red candles, twenty in all, and four central candles.
By 1930 the tradition had spread to other protestants and was mainly domestic, especially amongst the upper classes, in focus. There is no Catholic mention until the Roman Catholic publication Lexicon fuer Theologie und Kirche notes its after 1945 by Catholics. Due to the strong protestant Lutheran tradition in the USA it appears to have become established by the late 1930s and had moved into churches where greater symbolism regarding the colours of candles and linked to specific Sundays becomes established such as a pink one for Gaudete.
Advent in the British isles
Evidence is hard to find on the origins on the earliest use in the UK. There are mentions of the custom is the 1963 Children’s Books for the Holidays a US publication and there is no similar mention in British liturgical volumes such as the 1980 Alternative Service Book of the Church of England. Indeed bizarrely as it seems we find ourselves going full circle and looking upon Blue Peter again as our earliest reference in the 1970s. Blue Peter begun making their crown as they called it – probably because wreath was a bit too maudlin – in 1964. Why again they should adopt it is unclear. Had they seen it in the US? Was someone on the production team Lutheran? Perhaps the reasons exist in a dusty set of files in the Blue Peter office. But it would appear the show introduced the tradition for the first time to its Anglican community. In a way as presenters Lindsey and Radzi have celebrated 50 years of the famous Blue Peter Christmas advent crown the Blue Peter Crown making is a custom in its own right. A right of passage for presenters and even ex-presenters can be seen making them at home.
Today churches from Nottingham to Manchester, Cornwall to Cumbria all have adopted the wreath in Catholic and Anglican communities much as the Christingle was. Whatever the reason for Blue Peter’s adoption, it continues to be made this year even the pandemic cannot impact on that and a quick search of the internet shows that many of those brought up on Blue Peter continue to make theirs…and as such its position as a custom established by a TV show gives it a unique position.
T.F. Thistleton Dwyer in his British Popular customs present and past (1875) records that:
“At one time it was customary, at Peterborough, till the introduction of the new poor laws, for the female children belonging to the workhouse, attended by the master, to go in procession round the city on St. Catherine’s Day. They were all attired in white, and decorated with various coloured ribbons, principally scarlet.”
This appeared to be a moral formalised approach to the St. Catherine Day begging undertaken as he continues:
“the tallest girl was selected to represent the Queen, and was adorned with a crown and sceptre. The procession stopped at the houses of the principal inhabitants, and they sang the following rude ballad, begging for money at every house as they passed along :
” Here comes Queen Catherine, as fine as any queen, With a coach and six horses a coining to be seen. And a spinning we will go, will go, will go, And a spinning we will go. Some say she is alive, and some say she is dead, Aud now slie does appear with a crown upon her head. And a spinning we will go, &c. Old Madam Marshall she takes up her pen, And then she sits and calls for all her royal men. Aud a spinning we wQl go, &o. All yon that want employment, though spinning is but small, Come list, and don’t stand still, but go and work for all. And a spinning we will go, & If we set a spinning, we will either work or play, But if we set a spinning we can earn a crown a day. And a spinning we will go, &c. And if there be some young men, as I suppose there’s some. We’ll hardly let them stand alone upon the cold stone. And a spinning we will go, &c.”
The author reflects that as St. Catherine was the patron of the spinners, as well as of spinsters, and that spinning being formerly the employment of the females at the workhouse, it naturally followed that they should be selected to commemorate the anniversary of this Saint. He recorded that early entries in the Dean and Chapter’s accounts for payments of wheels and reels for the children show it to be of great antiquity. When it ceased is not known but presumably as the workhouses closed and spinning replaced with more mechanical procedures its enactors would have slowly died out.