The Holly, the Ivy, and the Mistletoe

The Holly, the Ivy, and the Mistletoe

Christmas is in six days. Less than a week. And I’m just barely starting to prepare to decorate. I love it when the job is done, but I don’t do it until the mood strikes. Some years, the mood waits to hit me until Christmas Eve. When I’m finally “feeling it,” it’s all done in a matter of hours because I tend to keep it simple. During the Regency period, it was considered unlucky by many to bring the greens into the house before Christmas Eve. I would have fit right in! Below is a photo of my tree and decorations from a few years ago, done mostly on Christmas Eve. I always love the glow of the tree in the dark, it was taken with the room lights out. I can’t wait until Christmas Eve this year because my sister is having a shindig, so I’ll get it done in the next few days, I’m sure.

Winter photo of Holly and Ivy grown together in Wales. Image from Wikipedia Commons

During the Georgian / Regency period, I wouldn’t have had a tree in my parlor, but there would be festive swags of spruce boughs brightened with red holly berries, with ivy woven in among the other greenery. You would also find fragrant rosemary, bay, and laurel leaves in the mix. There would possibly be some mistletoe, depending on the sensibilities of the mistress and master of the household. Some felt that mistletoe and the kissing bough were unrefined and confined them to the kitchen, allowing the servants to hang them there. Everyday people, particularly in the country also decorated with greens for Christmas. Holly and ivy were often grown together for ease of harvesting them at Christmas. Books of the era give very little information, but Austen gives us a hint at the preparations for Christmas in UpperCross in this passage from Persuasion:

“Immediately surrounding Mrs. Musgrove were the little Harvilles, whom she was sedulously guarding from the tyranny of the two children from the Cottage, expressly arrived to amuse them. On one side was a table occupied by some chattering girls, cutting up silk and gold paper; and on the other were tressels and trays, bending under the weight of brawn and cold pies, where riotous boys were holding high revel; the whole completed by a roaring Christmas fire, which seemed determined to he heard in spite of all the noise of the others.”

Winter Silhouette: Harvesting the mistletoe, sleigh ride and ice skating on the pond. Harrison Weir – Public domain image.

I can just imagine the bustling excitement in that scene, with children underfoot and everyone occupied in being ready for Christmas Day. There was one job that was commonly “outsourced,” though. Harvesting mistletoe was labor intensive and sometimes dangerous, involving climbing up into trees and literally “going out on a limb.” It was also a way for industrious persons to make a bit of extra Christmas–harvesting and selling the mistletoe, the critical element of the kissing bough. This decoration was a work of art, with greenery decorating a frame that held the mistletoe at the bottom so there was no mistaking whether the supply of white berries had been exhausted. This orb was suspended from the ceiling and the every kiss bestowed beneath it cost the cluster of mistletoe a berry. When the berries were gone, the kissing was over. The amount of mistletoe incorporated into the bough varied by household but was certainly more than the feeble little sprigs we’ve hung in the past.

It is a common misconception that Christmas Trees were not seen in England until Queen Victoria’s husband, Albert, introduced the tradition from Germany, but this isn’t entirely accurate. It is true that this was when the popularity of the tree took hold, but George III’s wife, Queen Charlotte, also of German heritage, introduced the Christmas tree in 1800. John Watkins described it in his biography of Queen Charlotte:

“At the beginning of October the royal family left the coast for Windsor, where Her Majesty kept the Christmas-day following in a very pleasing manner. Sixty poor families had a substantial dinner given them; and in the evening the children of the principal families in the neighbourhood were invited to an entertainment at the Lodge. Here, among other amusing objects for the gratification of the juvenile visitors, in the middle of the room stood an immense tub with a yew-tree placed in it, from the branches of which hung bunches of sweetmeats, almonds, and raisins, in papers, fruits, and toys, most tastefully arranged, and the whole illuminated by small wax candles. After the company had walked round and admired the tree, each child obtained a portion of the sweets which it bore, together with a toy, and then all returned home quite delighted.”

I haven’t personally had mistletoe at the house in years. I may have to introduce it back into our family Christmas traditions. It would liven things up, that’s for sure!

It’s your turn to share! Do you decorate your house for Christmas or another seasonal holiday? When do you decorate? What kinds of decorations do you prefer? When do you take them down?

Christmas Morning under the kissing bough. Illustration from “Christmas Throughout Christendom.” Image is in the public domain (Wikipedia Commons)


22 Responses to The Holly, the Ivy, and the Mistletoe

  1. Diana, thank you for this wonderful post. I usually hang a “Seasons Greetings’ sign on the door and nothing else.


  2. Love this blog. The mistletoe harvesting is great info and it is cool that some enterprising families could earn a little extra from selling it. I suspect they sent the children up, being the smallest and lightest of the group. Was there any other use for mistletoe besides the kissing bough?

    My enthusiasm for Christmas decorating is in direct proportion to whether or not my grandchildren are coming to my house for the holidays. At those times when the kids are not coming, I still feel the pressure of at least putting up some lights on the porch, so I don’t look like the grinch on the street. In spite of my grinch decorating tendencies, I do enjoy the spirit of the season.

    Thanks for the great and informative blog.

    • Thank you, K. They did send the young people out on a limb, particularly if it was a slender one. The challenge was that if the mistletoe fell to the ground with any force, it ruined the beauty of the mistletoe, so gentle treatment was key to an attractive bunch. And yes, the mistletoe was used medicinally during that time, for insomnia and epilepsy and was also believed to improve fertility, which is one of the reasons it came to be used as a symbol of the promise of new life celebrated at this time of year. (as opposed the the celebration of actual new life at Easter.)

      The kissing bough served multiple purposes. Visitors to a house might kiss the mistress or master of that house on the cheek to signal that they brought goodwill to the house and suitors used it as a courtship ritual for the object of their affection. On the darker side, it was used by men to justify advances on women they weren’t courting–particularly the pretty young maids–whether their attentions were wanted or not.

      Since my husband is a bit of a Grinch and not interested in putting them up, we haven’t had lights outside in years. Thanks for commenting, and Merry Christmas!

  3. Hi Diana,

    Thank you for a great post. I didn’t know all of those details about the kissing bough. How fun!

    How we decorate depends on who is going to be in the house. Recently, we got a new kitten, for example, so no breakable ornaments for a couple years, at least. I love Christmas decorations. I would leave the lights up all year if I could (inside). We don’t do much outside. It’s just too cold! 🙂

    • Summer, your solution for the kitten is almost the same as I came up with when the grandchildren started coming. I got a box of 80 very pretty and shiny, but “unbreakable” ornaments and they go on the bottom half of my tree. The kids have still managed to break a couple of them, but as long as they leave the top half of my tree alone, I’m not complaining! We left Christmas up until late February one year. My daughter was in Russia at Christmas and we told her we would “save” it and celebrate it with her when she got home. It was pretty special, actually. I love the lights too.

  4. In our house the tree goes up sometime on Thanksgiving day weekend and comes down on New Year’s Day. Always. It’s as much a tradition for us as the stockings by the fireplace.

  5. We put our tree up any time after Thanksgiving day, but usually within the next week. This year I was sick and my kids (ages 3-14) did all the decorating for me while I watched. It was wonderful (although I’ll pass on the severe cold next year….) We typically take it down anytime between boxing day and Jan 6, although I don’t think I’ve ever left it up past that day. I love the lights and music and happy feelings in my house at this time of year, but I never want to stretch it out more than a month because I think it keeps it more special that way. Love the post!

    • I hate to correct you, but you weren’t “watching” your kids decorate, you were “supervising the decoration initiation of the subsequent generation.” 😉
      Have a Merry Christmas!

  6. My daughter does all the decorating in our house. She just LOVES Christmas. I have a birthday Christmas week so in keeping with my own Mother’s tradition the tree goes up the week before that. It comes down any time after the sixth of January. I do enjoy this time of year myself. I have visitors arriving on the 23rd and look forward to that.
    Happy Christmas to you all here and I look forward to more great posts in the New Year.

    • Having someone who is really “into” Christmas in the house makes such a difference. I sort of married a Scrooge. Not that he’s cranky or mean like Scrooge, but I’ve heard him say “Bah Humbug.” over all the fuss and bother of the holiday season many times. It means if I’m going to get in the mood for decorating, I’m on my own. I hope you know that you’re lucky to have your daughter!

      I have been leaning toward the “anytime after the 6th of January” takedown approach myself, although my mother always made New Years Day the family “pack up Christmas” project.

  7. I decorated this year for the first time in years. I’m not sure how long it will stay up, but in the past I took it down anywhere between January 2 and Valentine’s Day. 😀 My tree is all done in purple, though I still have all the multi-colored things. Purple soothes me, though, and I much prefer that at this point in my life. 🙂 Thanks for the interesting post! I think your tree, if it looks like the one in the picture, is going to be gorgeous!

    • You would never guess it when the lights are on, but my tree is all blue, with some silver and gold thrown in along with a lot of clear ornaments like decorative icicles. I thought we were buying a “white lights” tree when replacing the last one, but my husband picked up the box with the colored lights and I didn’t realize it until we had the tree assembled and plugged it in. So in the daylight, my tree is blue and at night it’s all the colors. The clear ornaments reflect the lights in very pretty ways, and I’ve come to like the warmth of the multi-color glow. I would love to see your purple tree! Purple is very appropriate, since it’s the color of royalty and Christ is the King of Kings. Have a Merry, Purple Christmas! <3

  8. I usually put my tree up in the middle of December but it is an artificial one and it was put up in the roof space earlier in the year when my daughter and family came from Australia and my son and his wife have twin boys who were born at 30 weeks so he hasn’t had chance to come and get it down for me. So I just have a little tree this year. But that is fine and hopefully I will have it by next year. Yours looks amazing. We did used to put holly up when we were children but we had to stop because we had a pet budgie who used to try to land on that and any paperchains we put up. Thanks for this interesting post Diana.

    • Mid-December is a good time to decorate! There have been many years when that’s exactly when the mood hits, and for me, the lights help combat the darkness that descends as the days get shorter leading up to Christmas. I have a friend who moved mid-summer and had to put lots of her things in storage who realized that all her Christmas decorations are at the back of the tightly packed storage unit. She, like you, did a little tree this year, which you are absolutely right – it’s fine. 🙂 Thanks for sharing, and have a Merry Christmas!

  9. We always put our tree up on the Friday after Thanksgiving and leave it up until after the last Christmas celebration with my in-laws (usually the second week of January). For me, a lot of the celebration is the tree and it’s lights and ornaments. I don’t do much other decoration. Like Anji, my tree is artificial because of allergies, but I love the tree and it’s lights. We moved into a small condo this year so I sold my gigantic 9 foot tree and have a new one this year. I’m in Oklahoma and Mistletoe is our state “floral emblem” and it’s everywhere wild in the trees. I also have a couple cookies I must make every year as a tradition as well because my grandmother made them and it isn’t Christmas without them.

    Merry Christmas all!

    • The day after Thanksgiving is a day many of my friends have landed on too. There have been many years when I’ve said to myself in October that I’m going to do it that day too, and never once has it happened. LOL. Lots of those friends started decorating right after the US election this year, as sort of a post-political season therapy. I had no idea that Mistletoe was significant in any of the states – that’s pretty cool. Thanks for sharing, and Merry Christmas!

  10. We always have a tree at Christmas, an artificial one rather than a real one for many and various reasons. It’s become a tradition in our house that, whenenver possible, the tree is put up and the lights arranged on it on November 30th. It’s the day of our son’s birthday and it started when he was born. When my husband eventually left the hospital to go home for some sleep (son arrived at 14 minutes past midnight), he found he couldn’t get to sleep and instead went and got the tree (we’ve had a newer one since) out of the loft and started to decorate it. That was 24 years ago. This year, we were away visiting an elderly relative on the 30th but the tree went up first thing on the day after we got back. Usually it’s just the lights that go on it at first. Like you, Diana, I have to wait for the spirit to move me to finish decorating it and putting the rest of the decorations up. The tree is finished now (that was Saturday’s job) and the rest will probably get done tomorrow.

    We don’t put up any real greenery, due to allergies, but always have a display of the artificial kind on the mantels in both our living and dining rooms, and usually some draped over the top edge of some of our larger picture frames on the walls. The other thing we do is to have lighted candles on the dining table at lunch on each of the Sundays in Advent: one on the first, two on the second etc ending up with five on Christmas Day itself.

    The whole lot is usually taken down on 6th January, apart from the tree and it’s lights. They’re left lit until we go to bed that night and then put away the next day.

    • Anji, what beautiful traditions you have! I’m thinking that your son will always insist that the tree go up on November 30 in his own household as well – it’s tradition! I leave my decorations up until January 6th too, but then I just putter at putting them away. What took me hours to put up takes me a couple of days to take down, mostly because I’m a perfectionist at how everything is packed. Have a Merry Christmas!

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