Celebrating the winter solstice is an ancient tradition that is pre-Christian and associated with Pagan rites. The shortest day of the year on 21st December was marked by Celtic priests, known as Druids, who gathered mistletoe to then bestow a blessing – the berries symbolising the seeds of life in the year ahead.
The present-day West Country custom of wassailing when apple trees are doused with cider is another pre-Christian custom practised at the solstice and once thought to ensure a good harvest in the year to come. Beltane fires, singing and feasting near the turn of the year all predate the festival of Christmas.
Decorating a room or a door with leaves and greenery is an age-old relic of these earlier beliefs yet it still plays a major role in how we mark Christmas; though the introduction of the decorated tree is relatively recent, dating from the nineteenth century.
If you have access to fresh herbs during the winter months these plants make beautifully fragrant decorations for a mantle-piece, the festive table or a front door.
By Christmas Eve, I normally hope to have completed most of the preparation for the next day. Ideally, I arrange a relaxed, late afternoon tea with hot mince pies and a chocolate-coated Buche de Noel or Christmas Yule Log in time to accompany the singing of carols broadcast from King’s College in Cambridge.
When I’m really well organised I’ll have made a festive table decoration using sprigs of grey-leaved herbs such as rosemary, lavender and sage with a few early china-white flowers of my helleborus niger plant known as the Christmas rose. Then I light the small white candles and the magic of Christmas has begun.
A week or so earlier, sometimes with the help of my grand-children, we’ll have made a festive wreath of greenery for the front door. For years I used to pull a couple of wire coat-hangers into a circle as the frame but nowadays it’s easier to buy a rigid wire circle from a florist.
The Norsemen of Europe considered the circle, the shape of the sun, important in aiding the growth of crops and the symbol itself has survived the passage of time to feature at Christmas.
In Saint Montan where an enormous bay tree grows close to the house, I winter prune the branches in time to make a Christmas wreath entirely of its glossy dark-green leaves. But in Oxford, I assemble a variety of greenery. Using florist’s wire I attach short pieces of evergreen foliage with a few cuttings of bay leaves from my small trees to the wire frame – it’s an enjoyable annual ritual.
Then I hang it on the front door on a well-worn hook that has waited for 12 months to be useful once again. To my mind it’s more stylish to leave the wreath plain and green. But I’ve inherited the legacy of my ultra-Christmassy Canadian mother and cannot resist tying a big red bow of ribbon to the wreath then watch its long streamers flutter in the wind.