Twelfth, 13th or 20th Night?

When does Christmas begin and end? Opinions are divided.

I’m writing this on the 16th day of Christmas, that really windy Friday, and I’m just hoping that any Christmas trees or decorations still out may survive the storm. But perhaps they have all been taken down by now. I have seen council vehicles going about Kirkwall, collecting Christmas trees. At home, ours is still up, as we are always a bit disorganised and late with everything.

When is the right time to chuck out the Christmas tree, anyway? Opinions are divided. Over in Norway, my parents are of the opinion that it should go up approximately on the 23rd December, and down again on either the 13th Day of Christmas or the 20th – in which case, I have four more days before I’m definitely over the limit.

I have noticed that people here in Orkney put up their Christmas trees a lot sooner than that. I know the shops try to get the most out of the Christmas business by setting up Christmas displays early, but even private homes here have Christmas trees long before I’m ready to have one. This almost led to disaster one year. The real trees had arrived at Glue’s and Shearer’s, and I was planning to get one, as this was what I was used to from Norway and I didn’t own a plastic tree. But I was busy at work, and busy with other things, and I wasn’t ready to put up Christmas decorations yet, it was too soon, and I just didn’t get around to buying a tree. Then, around the 19th or so, I finally got around to doing it – or so I thought! But by then, all the trees were gone! Not a single one left, anywhere! In desperation, I tried my old friend in need at a late hour: Bruce’s Stores. Even a plastic tree would do at this stage. But the plastic trees were sold out, too! I imagined my children’s sad faces and how disappointed they would be if we had no Christmas tree. But Bruce’s Stores came to my rescue. There was one in the store room at the back, with faulty lights. I could have it, for free! That was the year that Bruce’s Stores saved Christmas. This little faulty plastic tree has now been with us for several years, as a true ever-green, coming out of the attic a few days before Christmas, and it is doing its job marvellously.

So I’m clearly out of sync with the rest of Orkney when it comes both to the timing of putting decorations up, and taking them down. But I was reading a book by Steve Roud called The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland, which has some interesting information on this topic. It says that in the past, it was believed to be unlucky to bring evergreens, especially holly, into the house before Christmas Eve. The decorations back then consisted of plants, such as holly, mistletoe, and ivy, as we can still observe in Christmas carols such as “Deck your halls with boughs of holly” and “The holly and the ivy”. Some also used laurel, box, bay, rosemary, and yew, although this latter one was in some places considered to be unlucky.

Mistletoe has been a bit controversial. The kissing custom was first described in print in the early nineteenth century, according to Roud, but the controversy has to do with the plant’s associations to druidism. From around 1800, the idea seems to have spread that mistletoe was a “pagan” plant. In 1810-1813 John Brand published his volumes on Observations on Popular Antiquities, in which he translates Pliny’s description of the Druids of Gaul from 77 AD, where they Druids are seen to revere mistletoe and harvest it with a golden sickle. Steve Roud sighs: “This short piece is responsible for more disinformation in British folklore than almost any other,” due to the misconceived notion that the Druidic reverence for mistletoe has somehow carried over to form the modern kissing custom. According to Roud there is no basis for this connection, and the kissing custom emerged in England in relatively modern times.

In Norway, an old custom was to bring juniper into the house for Christmas, as it makes a lovely smell. Norwegians also sing their Christmas carols while holding hands in a circle and walking around the Christmas tree, sometimes with associated moves to go with the text, such as clapping. In my father’s family, which owned some land, they always used to go to the forest and cut their own Christmas tree on one of the last days before Christmas. Christmas itself is celebrated there on Christmas Eve, as is also the custom in many other European countries. I have written before here in Mimir’s Well about old and new Scandinavian Christmas traditions, such as the Yule beer and the “nisse” or “tomte” who over time has come to be associated with Santa Claus.

But now it’s all over for this time – at least according to modern custom. Steve Roud notes a shift in what people in Britain have taken to be the correct time for putting up and removing Christmas decorations. Until about a century ago, it was put up just before Christmas, usually on Christmas Eve, and then left up for some time afterwards. The decorations could stay up well beyond Twelfth Night, even into February. A poem from 1648 tells us to take down the rosemary, bay, mistletoe, ivy and holly on Candlemas Day, the 2nd February. Once they were down, some fed them to their cattle, others were adamant they should be burnt, while yet others insisted they should not be burnt. Those who burnt them, might use them for making a fire to cook pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. Would people nowadays be horrified if a Christmas tree was left up until the start of February? If I am utterly disorganised one year, I might just find out.