Of Carols and Kissing Boughs

This time last year I was proudly labelling seven bottles of our own freshly brewed Sticky Rogers Mead which, incidentally, has matured into a very pleasant medium-dry festive tipple, and continues to grow in flavor and depth. Like everyone, back then I was busy preparing to celebrate Christmas and to welcome in the New Year. No mortal could have foretold the nightmares that that new year would bring, and now we’re all keen to see the back of 2020. Until then, though, we can at least enjoy some relaxation, feasting and fun and lose ourselves in a midwinter festival that has brightened our darkest days for thousands of years. I always try to bring a bit of the medieval into my Yuletide, and that usually involves a splash of nature’s finest evergreen and some early Christmas carols, for the origins of both lie way back in ancient times. So as the Yule log flickers in the glowing hearth once more, take a seat and let me tell you of the holly and the ivy, of carols and kissing boughs from Christmases long past. You may even discover a surprise or two…

Let the fun commence

Of course, the tradition of Christmas greenery has both pagan and Christian associations, going right back to the Roman festival of Saturnalia. Holly, ivy and mistletoe featured as part of their own particular brand of midwinter revels, along with drinking, feasting, mischief and great promiscuity as a good time was had by all. Little wonder, then, that the medieval church took a dim view of this orgy of misrule. The Catholic authorities sought to Christianise the festival, but there was no way they were going to be able to persuade the pagans to give up all their beloved traditions. Although many of the new religious practices were adopted, people continued to adorn their homes with the evergreen plants, so the medieval world ended up with an odd blend of two celebrations.

Bringing home the Christmas greenery

Medieval feast with it’s decorative greenery.
Doesn’t it look fabulously Christmassy?

Holly was reasonably straightforward to assimilate into Christianity. Some believed that it was the wood of the holly tree that was used to make the Cross for the crucifixion, and Jesus’s crown of thorns was thought to have been made from the leaves. Even the berries were believed to have been yellow until Christ’s blood turned them eternally red. Ivy wasn’t much of a problem either, being traditionally left outside the home. While Holly was generally thought of as a male plant, Ivy was seen as female, being clingy and frail and needing to hang on to anything for divine support, so it represented human weakness (I’d love to know who dreamt that one up…).

So holly wore the crown in the halls, offering protection and good luck, while poor old Ivy was banished into the snowy wilderness. Mistletoe was the trickiest of the triad of evergreens for Christianity to absorb, with its associations with flirting, fertility and deep-rooted ancient myths. The Druids had hailed mistletoe a cure-all, revering the plant that grew away from the ground and never touched it, while Norse mythology had its own divine story to tell. Instead of healing, the plant had caused the death of the god Balder, and as his grief-stricken mother, Frigg, wept for her son her tears formed the high-hanging pearly white berries. She kissed everyone beneath the tree where the mistletoe grew, and decreed that whenever people met beneath it they should do no harm, but kiss in peace. The clergy banned the plant from their churches despite a new popular myth doing the rounds that it was wood from a mistletoe ‘tree’ rather than holly that formed the Cross, and that the plant was so ashamed to have been involved in Christ’s death that it withered to a small parasitic weed, denied any contact with the Earth. Nice try on behalf of the worshipping public, perhaps, but with persistent church disapproval mistletoe had to make do with its place in the medieval home.

Amid all the Chrismas greenery, the mistletoe had to stay at home

Contrary to popular belief, Christmas trees were around much earlier than the Victorian era, their roots being firmly in the Middle Ages. Indeed, the fir tree has medieval connections with Christianity in a legend involving a Northumbrian monk called St Wilfrid from the seventh century. Taking exception to the Druidic practice of worshiping oak trees, Wilfrid cut down a particularly venerated oak while surrounded by a group of his converts, but in the place the tree split a fir sprouted. Wilfrid dedicated the new growth to Christ and thus the evergreen fir became part of Christian tradition. The custom of bringing a tree into the house was still many centuries in the future, but a nearby fir tree would often have been decorated al fresco with fruit, wafers or candles to commemorate St Wilfrid’s dedication. There’s even a fifteenth century reference to a fir tree adorned with candles appearing in London. But as for domestic greenery, pride of place went not to a tree, but to another elaborate Christmas fixture: the kissing bough. This beautiful hanging ball constructed around a wooden frame incorporated all the essential festive ingredients. Apples were often part of the decoration as symbols of fertility along with a sprig of mistletoe hanging underneath, and the completed ornament was placed in the hall for all to admire. So with the halls suitably bedecked, the midwinter revelers could enjoy a great party, with feasting, drinking and some merry Christmas carolling.

Three fine kissing boughs set the festive scene at Barley Hall,
a grand medieval townhouse in York

Many of the carols we belt out today are also associated with the Victorian era and images of snow-dusted Dickensian scenes, but music celebrating Christ was a big part of medieval celebrations too. Early Christmas hymns written in Latin for the clergy are traceable back to the fourth century, but it was in the early thirteenth century when one man’s concern for the wave of heresy sweeping Italy drove him to popularise the Christmas story for the secular public. This was St Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), a colourful character who not only invented the nativity scene but is credited with beginning our carolling tradition. As a charismatic and fashionable young man Francis lived life to the full, working as a troubadour composing poetry about love. It was this that inspired him to use song as a means of educating ordinary people about the life of Christ in a way that would appeal and could be easily remembered. He began writing devotional poetry in the vernacular and set his work to catchy folk tunes. Several of the songs were performed around his other new project, the nativity scene that he first staged in Greccio in 1223, and the revamped Christmas celebrations proved highly popular.

Revellers strutting their funky stuff to the popular tunes

The success of Francis’s venture caught on and the word soon spread across Europe, reaching England in 1224 with the arrival of the first Franciscan monks. Carols were a good excuse for a boogie as well as a sing-song, being performed as circular dance-songs, while groups of mummers travelled from house to house collecting money or booze, singing as they went. Francis’s musical initiative became a central part of the medieval Christmas whilst fulfilling its original purpose of educating people about the life of Jesus. But the old pagan ways weren’t entirely abandoned. Some of the ancient traditions held sway, with songs of the holly and the ivy finding a voice among the common folk, just as they do today.

Carols were performed as a circular dance-song

Mummers sang carols as they roamed from house to house

Many carols with medieval origins survive to this day, like the haunting Gaudete and the Coventry Carol, and the pretty In Dulci Jublio immortalized as an instrumental Christmas hit by Mike Oldfield in 1975. It’s even thought that some of our most popular festive hymns, such as While Shepherds Watched their Flocks and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, despite having acquired their present incarnations in the Victorian era began life back in the Middle Ages. And so it is with this in mind that I humbly offer you my Christmas gift below. It’s taken from an album called A Medieval Christmas by a talented duo of musicians I had the pleasure of meeting a couple of years ago at a jousting event at Kenilworth Castle. It’s a lovely version of the song, and the second half is given over to an instrumental that builds into a true burst of medieval festive joy. I hope it brings you joy too, along with the hope that out of the darkness of these modern times we can look forward to a brighter and happier 2021. So amid all the greenery and carolling of a far distant midwinter feast, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and I’ll see you again next year.