Decorating With Boughs of Holly

Holly (mrmac04 | morgueFile.com)

Photo credit: mrmac04 | morgueFile.com

For centuries, Europeans have decorated their homes and churches with greenery at Christmas. The tradition predates the Christian era. Pagan societies like the Romans, the Celts and the Norse observed Midwinter, the shortest day of the year, by decorating with cuttings of holly, ivy, bay, fir, rosemary, laurel, boxwood, mistletoe – any plant that remained green when woodlands and fields turned brown and bare. Holly, with its bright red berries and shiny green leaves, was perhaps the favorite ornamental.

For the Romans, holly was sacred to Saturn, the god of agriculture, whose late December holiday, Saturnalia, provided the occasion for a week of raucous revelry. The Druids believed holly repelled evil spirits and protected people from witches and mad dogs, a superstition that persisted throughout the medieval period and caused many to keep holly in their homes or wear it on their clothing as a charm against witchcraft.

Early Christian leaders tried without success to stamp out these pagan rituals and decorating customs. The more pragmatic among the clergy decided to convert the holly tree to Christianity by attributing Christian symbolism to its prickly leaves, or the crown of thorns, while its crimson berries became the drops of blood on Christ’s brow. Its capacity to remain green all year long became a metaphor for eternal life after death.

Holly is decorative in another way; its wood is hard, close grained and when the tree is cut during winter, almost white. These features make it ideal for furniture makers to use for inlay. The wood is also good for making musical instruments and piano keys. American holly, plentiful along the Eastern Seaboard, can grow as tall as forty or fifty feet, but few have trunks thick enough to yield more than small pieces of wood. Of 300 species of holly, about fifteen are native to North America. The most common of these is known as American holly. Its berries are poisonous; only the females have berries.

Ever since Christmas carols began in the fifteenth century, holly has figured prominently in their lyrics. The ever-popular “Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly” has been sung since the Renaissance. In old England, more than the halls were decked with holly boughs. In some towns, so were the streets. A half-century before Columbus brought news of a new world across the sea, Englishmen were erecting upright timbers in the streets and adorning them with boughs of greens. For most Englishmen and most who immigrated to the colonies, Christmas decorations meant indoor greenery.

Though no written sources describing colonial Virginia Christmas decorations have been discovered, historians have concluded that the usual English traditions continued in the colonies. Virginians considered themselves English in every sense of the word, clinging to Old World traditions while trying just as hard to keep up with the latest London fashions.

English prints of the eighteenth century picture holly arranged in pretty vases, stuffed into crude pots or stuck between the wooden muntins and the windowpanes. Decorating impulses did not stop with houses and churches; taverns and eating places had their share of greenery as well.

By the 1800s, holly was known as the “Prince of Evergreens”. It was everywhere; its prickly sprigs were wedged behind picture frames and clocks, twisted around the chains of chandeliers, arranged in vases, fastened to the tops of draperies and even stuck into holiday dishes as a garnish. Some of Virginia’s earliest Christmas trees were holly.

Not until the early twentieth century did magazines and decorating guides begin to encourage women to adorn the outside of the house as well as the inside with wreaths of holly or other evergreen. The days before Christmas were spent cutting cedar pine boughs and holly for decoration. All the windows had holly wreaths and Christmas gifts were wrapped in holly patterned papers tied with red ribbons.

HoWreath w/Hollylly wreaths were among the earliest Christmas decorations used at Colonial Williamsburg. When the restoration project funded by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. opened to the public in 1934, there were no decorations at all on the exhibition buildings at Christmas. No one had anticipated guests during the holidays. When guests did come, and they came in great numbers, the subject of appropriate Christmas decorations was raised. The next Christmas, plain wreaths made of holly and other native evergreens were hung on the doors of some buildings, followed the year after by the fruit-bedecked versions that have epitomized the Williamsburg Christmas ever since.

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