The Holy Bough

In medieval times, people would make a double hoop of evergreens twined around a pliable wood such as willow. This created a spherical object with four sides of evergreens. Anything which was green in color would suffice for the hoop...holly, bay, rosemary, box or yew, for example. In the center would be placed a symbol of the Holy Family, or maybe a Christ Child set upon a bed of moss. Later, the bough became decorated with ribbons, gilded nuts, fruits and other adornments, including mistletoe.

Properly called a "Holy Bough," this decoration was displayed by being suspended from a beam just inside the entrance to a house. The local priest would bless the boughs in his parish at a special ceremony. Akin to the "Kiss of Peace" in many modern churches today, the idea was to embrace beneath this bough, any visitor who came to the house over the Christmas Season. Such a gesture would indicate that any bad feeling or enmity between the parties had been forgotten. The custom found its way to Great Britain from Germany, where a small Fir tree-top was hung upside-down in much the same fashion.

When the Puritan Parliament of Britain under the government of Oliver Cromwell banned Christmas and all its associations, the Holy Boughs were included in the forbidden ceremonies. Nevertheless, those who lived in the rural areas, far away from the prying eyes of Cromwell's soldiers, continued to decorate with rough bunches of evergreens to remind them of the custom. There was, however, no Christ Child, no ribbons and no gilded nuts...simply a bunch of seasonal foliage tied to a hook, usually in the kitchen where, if questioned, the people could state they were drying herbs or hanging greens which would later repel summer flies. In secrecy, they still exchanged a symbolic embrace beneath the boughs and some of the branches were still blessed by recusant priests who, under pain of death, would travel to the Catholic and Anglo-Catholic houses in order that they might tend to the spiritual needs of the populace.

Although the Christmas ban lasted only a few decades, many of the traditions did not re-establish as they once were, but remained country customs in their new forms. By the Eighteenth Century, the Holy Bough had come to be known as the "Holly Bough" or "Holly Bunch." The quick kiss beneath it, more a tradition than a symbol of goodwill and peace. It also became known as the "Mistletoe Bough" and the "Kissing Bunch."

During the late Victorian Era, the widowed queen frowned upon some of the "vulgar" customs associated with Christmas. Thus, began a new custom. Each time a kiss was stolen under the Kissing Bough, a berry (usually of mistletoe) was plucked. By royal decree, when there were no more berries, there were to be no more kisses. This custom remained solely a British tradition for many years, only spreading to other countries in the middle of the Twentieth Century. Around the same time, natural evergreens began to be superseded by artificial decorations. Crepe paper twists and glued paper chains were popular in both America and Britain in the late Ninetheenth Century...but usually still sharing a place with the ever-popular holly, sprigs of which were positioned behind mirrors and pictures.


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