Every New Year’s Day the same question arises in this household…. “Is it too early to take down the Christmas decorations?”….
So, is it unlucky to remove them before the Twelfth Night? Certainly it’s bad luck to leave them up after…. Right? Then, there’s those who believe they should be gone before the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve – for to leave them in place would mean dragging all the negativity of the old year through to the new….
When exactly should we be taking down the tinsel and dismantling the tree then….?
In all honesty, there is a little leeway to be had here…. It all depends on whether the Twelfth Night or Epiphany is observed as the official end to Christmas….
In 567 AD, Councils of the Roman Catholic Church declared that the whole period between Christmas Day and Epiphany should become part of the celebration – and so hence the twelve days of Christmas came to be….the last night being the Twelfth Night and the eve of Epiphany….
Epiphany : from the Greek ‘epiphania’, meaning the visit of a god to Earth – or in this case, the manifestation of Jesus as the Son of God. A Christian Feast Day celebration – ‘The Feast of The Three Kings’ – falling on the 6th of January; a date that marks two important events in the life of Jesus Christ…. The first being that it was on this day the Magi (the Three Wise Men) visited the Baby Jesus; the second, it was also the date – some thirty years later – that Christ was baptised by St. John the Baptist….
Children were once told that taking the tree down too early meant the Three Wise Men wouldn’t be able to find their way to the stable….as they needed the star on the top of the tree to guide them….
Twelfth Night comes with its own set of customs and traditions; such as the singing of carols and ‘chalking the door’….
Chalking the door derives from the Israelites in the Old Testament – marking their doors with lamb’s blood to save themselves from illness and death – ‘The Passover’…. The modern belief being that the chalked marks on the door protect from evil spirits; sometimes the chalk used is blessed by a priest….
“20 + C + M + B + 18”
The numbers refer to the calendar year; C M B represents the names of the Magi – Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar – it is also an abbreviation of the blessing “Christus mansionem benedicat” – “may Christ bless this house”…. The ‘+‘ s depict Christ….
Another custom, going back to the beginnings of Christianity, is ‘House Blessing’…. A priest will visit the house and sprinkle holy water in every room, (sometimes also using incense and blessed salt) – whilst praying for the household occupants….
Throughout the Christian World Epiphany is celebrated in different ways. Here in the UK however, it very often tends to be over-looked; the majority of people having returned to work after the festive season. There are obviously some who attend special church services and perhaps even a few who enjoy a Twelfth Night cake…. In Victorian times it was far more recognised and we might have all partaken in an Epiphany Tart; essentially a jam tart – but rather a special one…. A pastry ‘star’ shape would be formed inside the outer crust of the open pie, making a total of thirteen sections – each would then be filled with a different type of jam….it was supposed to resemble a stained glass window. Considered a delicacy at the time, housewives would compete with each other to see who could create the best looking tart….
Many parts of the World do still celebrate Epiphany; in some European countries, such as France and Spain, special cakes and pastries are baked for the occasion…. In Belgium children might dress up as The Three Kings and go from door to door, to sing songs and be rewarded with sweets or money; Polish children often do something similar…. Whereas, some Italian youngsters hang up stockings ready to be filled with gifts….
I particularly like the idea of a custom they have in Ireland…. ‘Nollaig na mBan’ -or, ‘Women’s Christmas’…. It’s essentially a day off for women, when the menfolk do all the cooking and housework – now there’s a thought…. Sadly, in England generally the day is just marked as being the time to get those decorations down….
In days gone by, when we were festooning our homes with fresh greenery, decorations didn’t usually go up until Christmas Eve…. Nowadays, with artificial trees and such, we tend to put the decorations up earlier….many Brits choosing the beginning of Advent to do so and some Americans put theirs up straight after Thanks Giving….
Me, I’m one of those who leaves it until the last possible minute….and yes! – Our tree is down again first thing New Year’s Day…. It’s not because I’m ‘bah-humbug’ (my humbugs have usually all long-gone by then) but – in my defence – I’m considering the welfare of the tree….
We always have a real tree in this house; a potted one, with roots…. We are in the fortunate position that, because of the nature of John’s work, we have somewhere to plant them afterwards; (we now have a nice little grove of Christmas trees thriving down his yard)…. I’m sure once all the baubles, tinsel and lights have been removed and the tree gets back out into the fresh air it lets out an audible sigh of relief….
There once used to be a thought that tree spirits living within our Christmas trees needed to be released…. During the festive period they would happily live in the sanctuary offered by the greenery brought into our homes – the holly, ivy etc – as well as the actual tree…. But on the Twelfth Night these spirits had to be set free; to keep them captive would bring bad luck….the greenery would not return with the Spring – and the crops in the fields would fail….
Before Christmas trees were brought indoors, trees outside were often decorated – usually with strips of cloth…. It was thought that as all the leaves had been lost the spirits had abandoned the trees. To try to entice them back, it was deemed necessary to make the trees look beautiful again….and guess what…. Surprise! Surprise! Every year it worked – the spirits returned, bringing with them the leaves….
Therefore, evergreen trees and plants must have had special powers to ward off evil brought by the darkness of Winter…. To the Pagans evergreen represented the continuation of life…. Wreaths of holly and ivy and whole fir trees were brought indoors to honour the Norse god Jul and the Yuletide festival….
However, there is another story as to why we bring a tree indoors every Christmas time….
St. Boniface of Credition was a missionary of the Catholic Church during the 8th Century…. He traveled across Northern Europe trying to convert Pagans to Christianity….
It was whilst in the village of Geismar in Germany that St. Boniface witnessed a human sacrifice…. The Pagan villagers had gathered at the foot of their sacred ‘Thunder Oak’ – dedicated to their god, Thor – in order to make their annual offering….the life of a young child….
Enraged and horrified, St. Boniface seized an axe and felled the mighty oak…. Behind it was growing a small fir-tree…. Pointing to it St. Boniface exclaimed….
“This little tree, a young child of the forest, shall be your holy tree tonight. It is the wood of peace…. It is the sign of an endless life, for its leaves are evergreen. See how it points upward to Heaven. Let this be called the tree of the Christ-child, gather about it, not in the wild wood, but in your own homes; there it will shelter no deeds of blood, but loving gifts and rights of kindness”….
However astounded the Pagans may have been at what St. Boniface had done to their sacred tree, they obviously paid heed…. During the centuries to follow the tradition of bringing an evergreen tree indoors spread through Germany – and eventually the rest of the World….
So, yes! I do believe in the spirit of the tree….and it is only an act of kindness to release it back to the environment it is at its happiest in, as soon as possible….
OK – there is another reason too – I must confess…. I am always a little glad to get some normality restored to the household – (perhaps there is one humbug left over after all)…. However, there are those who leave their decorations up until Candlemas….and some even believe that if the decorations are still up after the Twelfth Night they should remain so for the whole year…. Perish the thought..!!