Christmas decorations

Show Summary Details

Quick Reference

Decorating houses and churches with evergreens is an old custom; London streets were decorated too, in John Stow's time (Stow, 1598 (1602): 123). Churchwardens' accounts throughout the 16th century record payments for holly and ivy, and at Westminster as late as 1647 ‘for rosemarie and baies that was stuck about the church’; other sources add cypress, laurel, box, and yew (Brand, 1849: i. 522–3). In homes, the centrepiece was the Kissing Bush (Bough or Bunch), known all over England from the 18th century until superseded by the Christmas tree. Basically, it was constructed from two hoops at right angles, intertwined with ivy and holly, and fixed to the ceiling; from it hung apples, oranges, streamers, sugar mice, and, most importantly, a sprig of mistletoe.

More elaborate decorations became fashionable in Victorian times, including greenery festooned over mirrors and pictures, and, later, paper garlands, hanging confections, and seasonal mottoes embroidered or picked out in artificial flowers. German influence is likely here; Hannah Cullwick, maid to a London family, thought it ‘a German way’ when a fellow servant put up paper festoons and coloured candles for Christmas in 1871 (Cullwick, Diaries, ed. Liz Stanley, 1984: 184–5). Tinsel, baubles, and other artificial adornments are now ubiquitous.

Traditions differ sharply on when to take decorations down and what to do with them. Twelfth Night is generally mentioned nowadays, though some say they must be removed on this date, others on its eve. In earlier records, they stayed up till Candlemas (2 February). Once taken down, many sources state the evergreens should be burnt—especially the mistletoe, according to Charles Igglesden, otherwise ‘all who have kissed beneath it will be foes before the end of the year’ (Igglesden, c.1932: 69–70). Others insist they should never be burnt. Occasionally, they were fed to cattle.


Opie and Tatem, 1989: 76;Brand, 1849: i. 519–25.

Reference entries

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Please, subscribe or login to access all content.