Tag Archives: decorations

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.

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!