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Decorating Christmas through the ages

Seasonal traditions have provided solace in difficult times

2020 has been a year of massive societal change. Our lives have been turned upside down due to Covid-19. On the plus side, one of the welcome effects has been to make us focus more on traditions.

There is no better time than Christmas for tradition. As I write, we have, for the first time ever, put up decorations prior to 1 December.

In the past we may have been mildly critical of seeing Christmas lights appearing in homes not long after Halloween. But not this year! Coming to the end of level five lockdown, combined with some dreary, wet weather, spirits were flagging. So when Mrs H proposed a gradual cheering up of the house with Christmas decorations, I, with some alacrity, agreed.

Where did Christmas traditions originate? Our western Christmas began as a Christianised pagan feast. The Christmas tree is also a pagan symbol of fertility. A big part of this tradition was to give people living in cold northern climes something to look forward to.

The feasting at Christmas, with its rich food and lots of candles, helped rally people faced with interminable long cold nights. Fir trees were brought inside and lit with candles as a symbol of the hope that spring would return with new crops and plentiful food.

So this year’s welcoming of traditional Christmas practices much earlier than usual is probably a response to a difficult nine months for most of us. A Covid-Christmas effect, perhaps?

Interestingly the idea of hanging up decorations in the middle of winter is older than Christmas itself. Decorations are mentioned in ancient descriptions of the Roman feast of Saturnalia, which is thought to have originated in the 5th Century BC.

Some 900 years later, a Christian bishop in Turkey wrote disapprovingly about members of his congregation who were drinking, feasting, dancing, and “crowning their doors” with decorations in a pagan manner at this time of year. A wise Pope Gregory the Great took a different view, recommending that these celebrations should be reinvented rather than banned.

For poorer people, decorations were based on available greenery – holly, ivy, and mistletoe. Aristocratic households preferred to display their wealth by bringing out their best tapestries, jewels, and gold platters to decorate their mansions. But descriptions of Christmas festivities well into the 17th century focus on the decoration of the person rather than the house. Costumes, masks, role-reversing clothes, and face-painting feature prominently.

Ironically, given the role of modern business in Christmas, the Industrial Revolution came close to destroying Christmas, by taking away traditional holidays in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Thankfully, social reformers responded by energetically reinventing traditions. Meanwhile, the custom of decorating a Christmas tree originated in Germany in the 16th century, before spreading across Europe and the US. The tree’s decorations were mainly candles and small presents of homemade food and sweets.

By the 1890s the tree might be accompanied by a display of printed Christmas cards bearing images of holly, mistletoe, seasonal food, and bells. Newer images including robins and, of course, Father Christmas, came later.

Industry then fuelled the expansion of Christmas. Affordable, mass-produced toys, gifts, and decorations turned Christmas into the festival we know today and made decorations possible for almost all households.

FW Woolworth, he of the eponymous chain of shops, played a major part in creating and spreading affordable versions of decorations. His decision to import large quantities of glass baubles, originally produced by family workshops in Germany, was a key factor.

They were soon joined by paper garlands and decorative Christmas stockings, as well as painted tin toys.

Now chez Houston has a long-standing abhorrence of tinsel. It is absolutely verboten on the Christmas tree; me, the only one in the house partial to a small bit of tinsel, has to be content with a strand or two tucked away on a library shelf. But again, tinsel was a German creation – originally fine, sparkling strips of silver, but later mass-produced using plastic.

I’ve noticed an emphasis on non-plastic decorations in the last couple of years. It’s nice to see objects made from wood and other natural materials in place of landfill-poisoning, non-destructible plastic.

Anyway, looking into the rooms we have just decorated is undoubtedly uplifting. Modifying our tradition chez Houston this Christmas was definitely the right thing to do.

I’d like to wish our readers a very happy Christmas, with just enough intermingling to make it feel sociable, but not infectious.

And I would also like to offer season’s greetings to the Editor and the hard-working staff of Ireland’s premier doctor newspaper, The Medical Independent.

Go mbeirimid beo ar an am seo arís.

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