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.

54 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! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • 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!

      Liked by 1 person

    • 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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      • I won’t lie, an OU degree is really hard work and a hell of a commitment, and that’s probably why they’re highly regarded nowadays, but for me it’s been worth the hard slog. There is an endgame – my dream is to be a medieval historian, hopefully mainly involving castles and the people who built them and lived in them, and I’d love to do castle tours, research, writing etc and just generally spread the love of all things medieval. As Malc knows, my ultimate dream is to live in one! Hopefully two weeks from today I’ll be one step nearer that goal. I’m planning to go on and do an MA in either medieval studies or heritage for the castles after having a year off. Fingers crossed that all pans out ok…

        Believe me, I can talk about the middle ages and it’s fabulous stories for hours on end… 😀

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      • Good for you.

        I am not sure quite whether to cheer you on or call you complete idiot for wanting to suggest doing a further qualification. Being a generally benevolent character I think I’ll cheer you on.

        If you ever do get round to doing castle tours and if this bloody unnecessary virus is ever controlled in my lifetime, I shall look forward to one of your tours. I just know you would make it magic.

        I have all my extremities crossed for you but I don’t think you really need it. With your obvious passion for the subject and your equally apparent (to the untrained eye, it has to be said) knowledge of it, you’ll be fine.

        If you get a moment, please do let me know how you get on. Something in my gut is screaming 2:1!

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      • An MA is hard work, yes, but it’s not as long as a degree – you can do it part time over two years. But I’m going to have a year off first! I’ve already got my first castle visit planned post-dissertation! 😀

        I’d love to see you on one of my castle tours one day – it would be great to have both you and Malc along. Over the past few years I’ve done a few impromptu mini tours with visitors who have been wandering around wondering aloud about something or other, and they’ve always been really grateful and fascinated. I’ve also been told, as you already seem to have picked up on, that my passion shows and rubs off on other people, so I can’t wait to get out and spread the medieval love.

        Thanks again for the good wishes. A 2:1 would be brilliant, especially as this year students’ research has been so restricted. We can’t go to libraries or indeed anywhere to do research, and all our sources have had to come from the internet or hard copies of books that we’ve had to buy instead of borrow. Most of us haven’t been able to access sources we knew would help us, and that’s been really frustrating. It’s rather like doing a dissertation with one of your arms tied behind your back, but there it is. I’ve done my best with what’s available and you can’t do more than that. Fingers crossed for that decent grade, then, despite all the obstacles and restrictions. And see you at a castle!

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  7. Hello Alli,

    thanks so much for your lengthy response and you have managed to, somewhat eerily, read my mind. Are you sure there is nothing eldritch about you?

    I was thinking, whilst reading your excellent pieces, how good it would be if Malc, you and I could get together for a wander round somewhere. I know I have hosted numerous visitors from all over round the East End of London which is where I know most about, and loved it. There is something hugely satisfying about sharing what knowledge you have (in my case not a lot) with others and I know that a castle tour with you would be a joy.

    I know that Malc is not blessed with the best of health at present and nor am I. Travel within our own shores seems to be the order of the day as I still do not know if I will ever be allowed to fly again or indeed where to with the Chinese virus and so we have to cut our coat to suit our cloth so I am already planning many UK trips. There are so many regions of the UK that I, appallingly, know nothing of.

    Let’s make it a plan then, you take Malc and I on a trip round somewhere you obviously know so well. Dinner (with mead if available) is on me! Just as a sidebar to this, if you were organising a trip for Malc and I and had only a few sites to see, where would you choose?

    I was going to guess North Wales with the Norman fortresses but, thinking about it now, I am not so sure. Chances are that you would drag us up a mountain to see a bunch of semi-buried stones which was a fort of Owain Gwynnedd centuries ago. You would probably come up with something completely off the wall.

    As for your degree, I am certainly hoping for a 2:1 and I do not base this hope purely upon a whim. I do not have many life skills but one I have and which has been remarked upon is my ability to “read” people, it was something of a survival instinct in my previous existence. The fact that I am here, at 61 years of age and talking about it, proves it.

    I know how passionate you are about your subject, I know how much time and energy (in all senses) you have put into this and the fact that you have managed to study whilst maintaining home life under the Hell imposed on us by the Chinese, is remarkable. I cannot begin to believe how you do it. When do you get your results?

    You say you cannot do anything other than your best, how true that is. When this is over, you should consider a further degree in philosophy, I know you’d be good at it.

    Best of luck with the degree and we shall speak soon,

    Fergy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There’s probably plenty that’s eldritch about me, Fergy!

      As a devoted medievalist who adores British castles I can’t say the foreign travel restrictions really bother me, as most of what I want to do and see is contained within these islands. You are right to say how much there is to see on our doorsteps, Our nation is so rich in heritage and beauty. I would, however, love to go to France one day and tour all the Norman castles there, as their history is so intertwined with our own. Accordingly, I wouldn’t ask me where to meet up as I’d always choose a castle! Either that or a beautiful woodland, another passion linked to the middle ages, and my favourite environment to walk through. I do love mountains too, of course, mainly as scenery though. I’m a walker not a climber, so I wouldn’t impose that on you.

      As for how I’ve managed to do a degree, I’ve genuinely no idea at all, especially when you throw in an autistic son who missed nearly a year of his schooling and support and a highly sensitive daughter, both of whom have suffered greatly this past year – as have all of us, for that matter. There have been times when I’ve been within millimeters of giving it up with the weight of it all, but my great tutor always urged me on and now I’m glad I stuck with it. I guess in retrospect, although I haven’t always been able to give it my all, or in truth even concentrate properly, studying is one of the few things that has kept me sane. Funny what you should say about philosophy, because I’ve often been told I should be a psychologist (not the same, of course, but not a million miles away). But I think I’ll stick with being a medievalist and losing myself happily in the past.

      So only a week to go now, and then I’ll be heading for a pub and some castles at last to kick back and relax. Forgive me if I go a bit quiet then until it’s all over, but I’m looking forward to getting blogging again and catching up. As for the results, not sure yet when we get them, but it’ll probably be later in the summer. Thanks for your kind support, and for keeping it all crossed for me! And take care.
      Alli.

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  8. My dear Alli,

    eldritch is cool, everyone likes a bit of mystery!

    You are so right about what we have on our doorstep and perhaps the current situation might give a much needed boost to a tourist industry in this country that has been dying on it’s feet for years. I am almost ashamed to say that there are counties in this country I have never even been to. I’ve been to Burma / Myanmar, Thailand, Lao, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Canada etc. etc. and I have never been to Powys or Ceredigion which are a couple of hours on the train from home, how crazy is that?

    You mention travelling to France for the Norman history and I am something of a Francophile myself but someone of your academic standing will of course know that the “Normans” were actually Vikings so perhaps a trip to Scandinavia might be in order as well although I know it is before your period.

    As for our prospective meet, go ahead and choose your favourite castle, I like a castle as much as the next man and I know Malc does. Of the many you have obviously visited, do you have a favourite? Don’t worry about not walking up a mountain, I fear my days of mountain walking are long gone much as that saddens me.

    Having read your last response I am even further in awe of your feat in finishing your degree. I did not know your son was autistic and I can only imagine how the recent circumstances must have impacted that condition. Your sensitive daughter must have been having a rough time too. How you managed to complete a degree whilst juggling that home life is, frankly, a matter of mystery to me and does you huge credit. I can only guess at what your children were going through in what are, let’s be honest, pretty Hellish circumstances.

    There is absolutely no need for my forgiveness if you drop off the radar for a while, much as the sentiment is appreciated. I do like your concept of heading for a pub which seems to me to be in long held traditions of academia! Do you have a favourite “local” and, more importantly, is it still open?

    Right, enough of this, I must have bored you to death by now. I still have everything crossed for you (which makes walking difficult!) and I am still confidently predicting a 2:1, you’re worth it.

    Speak soon,

    Fergy.

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