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Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/Christmas evergreens




In the dark, cold mornings of Christmas week, some two or three hours before dawn, when the gas lamps are still glimmering through a misty haze, and link boys are flitting about, like Will o' the Wisps, with dripping brands, when waggons and horses loom large and shadowy, and when buyers and sellers, muffled up in capes and overcoats, seem to be puffing phantom pipes every time they open their lips, many thousand bundles of holly and mistletoe are disposed of at Covent Garden, Farringdon, and the other vegetable markets of the metropolis. But the purveying of "Christmas" is not only dabbled in by the regular traders—that is, the men who can each boast of a local habitation and a name, and are always begging one to note their address—the chief part of the business is in the hands of the irregulars—the costermongers, frozen-out gardeners, and that legion of street folk, who get their living "promiskus," and resent all inquiry into their name, profession, or abode. During the first weeks of December, some six or seven hundred men and boys, mainly recruited from the purlieus of St. Giles and Seven Dials, are busily engaged in reaping the harvest of evergreens in the country round London, sometimes tramping back to town every night, at other times sleeping in barns' and outhouses, and, occasionally, after a lucky search, indulging in the luxury of a two-penny "lodging for travellers." It will not do to inquire too particularly whence the supplies of evergreens, with which we decorate our parlours and dining-rooms, are originally obtained. In some cases the right to gather them has been duly paid for; but in the majority of cases, it is to be feared, that this formality is dispensed with. Suburban gardens are sadly pillaged about this season; and many a worthy citizen, pacing his trim gravel walks, till the 'bus comes to the door, is dismayed to find that his pet holly bush has been remorsely mangled, and stripped of all its bright array of scarlet berries. The quest for mistletoe must, however, be carried further a-field, and is attended with greater risk, as it involves the climbing of high orchard walls, stuck full of iron spikes and broken glass, and sometimes affrays with dogs and watchmen. Besides, this plant has become so rare, that several days may be spent without discovering any of it. The result is that mistletoe is about double the price of holly. According to Mr. Mayhew's calculations, about 59,040 branches of holly and 56,160 of mistletoe are sold in London every season. As much as 2001. worth of holly is required for the sprigs which are stuck into metropolitan plum-puddings, and which, as every one knows, are essential to the true Christmas flavour.

The custom of decorating churches with holly was of pagan origin. The temples of Rome were decked out in a similar manner during the great festival of the Saturnalia, and the early Christians followed the example. The practice is, however, falling somewhat into disuse. If Miss Jenny Simper lived in our days, she would have no ground for the complaint she addressed to the "Spectator"—that "our clerk, who was once a gardener, has this Christmas so over-deckt the church with greens that he has quite spoilt my prospect, insomuch that I have scarce seen the young baronet for these three weeks, and unless the greens are removed, I shall soon have little else to do in church than say my prayers!"

There is a dispute as to the propriety of introducing mistletoe into a religious edifice. Gay, in his "Trivia," says:


Now with bright holly all the temple strew,
With laurel green and sacred mistletoe.


And Stukeley tells us, that it was once the custom at York, on Christmas eve, to carry mistletoe to the high altar of the Cathedral, and to proclaim "a public and universal liberty, pardon, and freedom to all sorts of inferior, and even wicked people, at the gate of the city toward the four quarters of heaven." Brande, however, denounces the mystic bough as a heathenish relic, which it would be nothing short of sacrilege to carry into a church: and exultingly recounts several instances where clergymen had ordered the obnoxious greenery to be removed before they would proceed with the service.

The association of kissing and mistletoe is supposed to come from the Scandinavian mythology. It was with an arrow fashioned out of a mistletoe bough that Loki, the evil one, slew Balder, the son of Friga, the baleful parasite having alone, by its insignificance and seeming frailty, escaped the oath which was imposed on all other things belonging to Earth, Air, Fire and Water, not to harm the fair young god. All nature mourned so bitterly the death of Balder, that Hela consented to restore him; and the mistletoe was then consecrated to his mother, in order to prevent its being again used as an instrument of mischief. Friga, being the Scandinavian Venus, it is easy to see how kissing under the mistletoe came into fashion. Lest the occasional scarcity of the plant should at all check the popularity of the pleasant rite, the maidens used to make "kissing bunches" of evergreens, decked with ribbons and oranges, which it was said did just as well. In our own days kissing "under the rose" seems more in favour.

J. H. Fyfe.