Good luck or bad? How Christmas decorating traditions vary in England

When do you put your Christmas decorations up and take them down? How do you dispose of them afterwards? And do you adhere to the strict traditions for your specific locality?

If not, then this simple festive activity could have been placing you at hair-raising peril for the year ahead, according to researchers from the University of Leeds.

The experts in English life and language uncovered an unexpected treasure trove of Christmas-related plant lore from across England when they delved into their internationally prized archive for their heritage project to explore and preserve England’s dialects.

“We stumbled on these fascinating stories about Christmas traditions quite unexpectedly when we were looking at the oral history and reminiscence sessions that had been held in the 50s and 60s. They were a delight to find,” said Dr Fiona Douglas, the project lead for the dialect and heritage project at the University of Leeds.

“What’s interesting is that so many of these traditions still persist and they still vary across the country,” she added. “Discovering that these varieties are still alive and well is a particular delight because I think we often feel that, despite the fact that we’re part of a big, international community, we live in a very homogeneous society.

“These findings show that localness did and still does make a big difference, and that we’re all still individuals.”

What the research findings show is that households across England need to time their Christmas festivities with care to avoid falling foul of dire predictions. Old traditions morphed across small geographical areas, with a tradition that promised good luck in one place sowing a year’s worth of disaster a few miles down the road.

“I don’t think many people nowadays know why they put up, take down and dispose of their Christmas decorations as they do but it all comes back to these age-old traditions,” said Douglas. “That’s fascinating in its own right because it shows traditions have a momentum of their own: they can be so deeply embedded in people and their communities that they’re followed without even being noticed.”

Douglas and her colleagues discovered the material as they embarked on their high-profile heritage project to help explore and preserve dialects in England.

They discovered that Staffordshire was the most unpredictable county in England when it came to Christmas mores.

In some areas of the county, holly and ivy had to be burned at Candlemas (40 days after Christmas) while in others, it had to be kept until the following year to protect the house from lightning.

In east Cornwall, decorations had to come down on 7 January, also known as St Distaff’s Day, an unofficially holiday to mark the day before women resumed their spinning after Christmas celebrations.

Households in Warwickshire had to rid themselves of all greenery before Twelfth Day, 5 January. In London, all traces of Christmas had to be gone by the Twelfth Morning.

But households in Somerset, Cheshire, Yorkshire and Lincolnshire had a sliver more breathing space: they only risked a year of bad luck if they failed to shed their greenery by the evening of Twelfth Night.

Gloucestershire families had to get it down by 12 January – possibly to coincide with Plough Monday, the day men returned to work after the Christmas break. Derbyshire was the most chilled county, with households able to choose between Twelfth Night and Candlemas.

So what to do with the greenery once it has been taken down? Again, customs varied, but the penalty for making a mistake was harsh, with families risking a death, fire or the devil entering the house.

In Shropshire, for example, a mistletoe bough had to be preserved until a new one was hung the following year. In Warwickshire, holly had to be burned but mistletoe and rosemary had to be kept until the following year to keep ghosts away.

But in Somerset, Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, burning would cause a death in the family. Greenery had to be thrown away instead.

Susan Drury, the author of Plant Lore in England: 1600-1800, said: “It is important to consider that the basic instinct for survival and preservation, the attempts to guard against misfortune or explain it in ways readily understood and seek reassurance about the future is at the base of many beliefs connected with plants, not just Christmas greenery, and its manifestations are complex and often elaborate.”

She added: “We should remember that until the end of the 18th century, England was still essentially a pre-industrial society, mainly agricultural and with the majority of the population living in rural areas in small communities. Except for London, most urban areas were still small. Society was based around the family and household, working in cooperation with neighbours and relatives; local beliefs and traditions therefore remained strong and there were many regional diversities.

“These were important sources of personal and local identity. Conversely though, people did move around the country seeking work, say at harvest time, taking their beliefs and customs with them.”

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