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.

46 thoughts on “Of Carols and Kissing Boughs

    • Thanks, Bobby! Glad you enjoyed this journey into Christmas past, and I wish you and yours all the best for the season and for 2021 too. 🙂

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  1. I can’t believe Sticky Rogers was a whole year ago! Wow, time flies. I am listening to the song right now. It is so pretty. You can hear how it may have influenced other Christmas songs. I love the green of Christmas too – so interesting to learn about!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Robyn, as always. Yes, good old Sticky was a year ago, but he’s been worth the wait. Glad you enjoyed my Christmas offering, and yes it is a lovely son, isn’t it? It’s always playing in our house at this time of year.

      I’ll be over to you soon. Sorry for my recent absence, but as you can probably imagine, blogging is having to be very part-time this year as I race towards my dissertation. Look forward to catching up soon, though, and Merry Christmas! 🙂

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    • Thanks, Graham, glad you liked my festive offering. It was tough letting Sticky Rogers mature this long, but it’s worth the wait. I haven’t brewed Sticky Rogers Jr yet, but I can see it happening – making your own mead is huge fun. 😀

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  2. Another interesting read…

    Women ‘clingy and frail’ – huh! I think women have proved their strength and fortitude throughout most of history!

    It doesn’t seem a full year since ‘Sticky Rogers’! Drink is a sore point in our family just now. My Mum got drunk the other night while I was visiting (surreptitiously, while I watched something on TV) and fell in the bathroom while getting ready for bed banging her head very badly. So she’s spent the last week in hospital – I’m hoping she’s back out for Christmas!

    You mentioning the popular Christmas Carols reminds me that Richard and I have just been going through all our childhood versions of the words (While Shepherds Washed their Socks etc) on the phone.

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    • Oh I remember all those alternative lyrics! In fact, I was tempted to write the ‘sock-washing’ title in the post but managed to resist. Great fun though.

      Sorry to hear your poor mum came a cropper to the demon drink. Hope she’s better in time for Christmas. I reckon this year has driven quite a few people to drink.

      You’re right about women proving their worth through history. Some of the medieval women I’ve come across while I’ve been studying Welsh history over the past few months are really amazing. They’d be fabulous role models!

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    • They’re great, and I really enjoyed listening to them at the joust. I’ve been on their mailing list since I spent a while with them. What you’re probably hearing is the English Border Bagpipes, which Sophie was playing and introduced me to. I’d never heard of them before! They’re lovely. For this album they had a guest singer/musician with them so I’m not sure whether it’s mainly her or Sophie singing. Sophie is a soprano though, so it’s probably her. I think they’re based in Coventry, which makes sense as I met them at Kenilworth Castle not far from there.
      http://www.greenmatthews.co.uk/

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  3. oh so many fun details – like the tree being around before the victoria era – and some of the holly an mistletoe fun factoids
    so nice to see a post from you – and we are online live – when does that happen??

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know, it is unusual, isn’t it? Merry Christmas Yvette! Thanks for reading, and I’m sorry I’m not around a lot in the blogsphere at the moment. My final uni year is proving ridiculously hard work, and I have to do my dissertation in the spring. So blogging is having to be rather patchy and part-time this year. I’m looking forward to it all being over with and I can breathe and blog again! 🙂

      Glad you enjoyed my seasonal offering though, and all the best to you and yours. 🙂

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  4. A Medieval Christmas sounds more fun than a 2020 one, although a glass or two of Sticky Rogers might help a bit 🙂
    As for the greenery, I suppose holly represents the male because it probably doesn’t pay to stand too close to it 🙂 but I did enjoy listening to a Medieval Christmas. Another smashing post Alli.

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  5. really interesting piece which conjured up all sorts of pictures of the past. Sounds more fun than todays festivities. Loved the Medieval Christmas music and what beautiful voices.

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  6. Alli, what a brilliantly researched and presented piece, full of information as always. I really cannot wait to read this dissertation of yours as I know it is going to be a beauty and, with the engaging way you write, you could probably pad it out a bit with a few not strictly historically accurate paragraphs and it will sell as a novel!

    I loved the YouTube musical piece and couldn’t resist playing grabbing the guitar and playining along a little bit. Who the Hell composes in the key of Cm? Thankfully the capo covers a multitude of sins ! Speaking of which, I can still remember the words of the chorus to Gaudete and I reckon the double speed guitar work on Oldfield’s In Dulce Jubilo is hugely under-rated.

    Keep your head down, you are getting near now and, on a purely selfish level it will give me great pleasure to say I “know” someone else with a degree. I am not at all clever but I do like “hanging out” people who are.

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    • Thanks, Fergy! So glad you enjoyed reading about these snapshots of a medieval Christmas, and that you liked the song. It captures the festive season for me. Gaudete is also, of course, medieval in origin although the tune we know today is supposed to be from the 16th century. Still, I love that too, and of course Dulce Jubilo comes from the same era. I love all these wonderrfu relics from my favourite age.

      If I do the Nest Quest I’ll recycle the story and my research for the blog so it’s not so academic. Of course I have to rein in the style for my uni work, which is a challenge sometimes, but apparently I’m striking an ok balance. Thanks for the encouragement, although I’m not sure how clever I am or whether I”m just good at blagging! 😉

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      • You blag delightfully, Alli.

        I know exactly how you feel about writing, I have a constant battle with myself to stop rambling (hence the name of my site) and it must be doubly difficult with the constraints of academia upon you. I am sure you will do your subject complete justice in whatever style you choose to write.

        Your thanks are much appreciated but totally unnecessary. As I said, I have toyed with the idea of an OU degree for many years now but just have not got round to extracting the proverbial digit from the proverbial orifice and I therefore admire hugely those of you that have.

        Is there an endgame for this? Do you wish to teach or take up a further career (other than mead production!)or is it just studying for the love of doing it, even if you don’t love it very much at present? Any of the above options are equally valid.

        I swear I am going to be all over your dissertation like a rash, I just love quirky things like that and I hope we can possibly meet sometime to chew the fat about things that happened centuries before we were born!

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