I don’t know whether it’s that I’m a bumpkin, or that I love the symbolism that lies at the heart of Christmas (okay I do know – it’s both), but the holiday just wouldn’t be right for me without my home being filled with glossy evergreens. When I was a kid, Christmas decorating would start with a day of cleaning the house, polishing the brasses til they gleamed, then literally decking the halls with boughs of holly. I realise that sounds like below-stairs at Downton Abbey, but it seemed normal at the time.
Gathering the greenery was a crucial part of the fun. My sister and I would head out into the woods with secateurs and return with armfuls of holly, ivy, laurel and yew (my conifer of choice for decorating, dark, dark green, and redolent of superstition). We’d scrump mistletoe from an apple tree in a neighbouring farmer’s field. For some reason we got it into our heads that this farmer would be furious if he caught us pinching this useless, parasitic plant from a tree he didn’t even harvest, so we used to go out after dark. It felt very adventurous, but there isn’t much to do in the countryside.
You can buy small bunches of over-priced greenery at florists, Christmas markets and the like, but it’s much nicer to take a stroll round a wood or along a hedgerow and gather your own. Holly, ivy and the other festive classics are not endangered, and cutting small amounts for non-commercial use is legal in the UK. For guidelines on picking wild plants visit this page: http://www.thewildflowersociety.com/wfs_new_pages/1f_code_of_conduct.htm
You won’t have to go far to find some gorgeous evergreens (don’t forget to scour the ground for fallen pine cones too), and you may even be lucky enough to have a garden with a good holly or bay tree. Just remember not to take anything from private property without asking the home/landowner’s permission! My days of mistletoe theft are over: just say no, kids.
Of course bringing greenstuff into the home begins and ends with the tree. I love every aspect of Christmas tree malarkey, going to the garden centre to choose one, the smell of pine in the car when you bring it home, the luscious green in its undecorated form, then the gradual adornment, each layer, lights, baubles, tinsel – seeming perfect in itself, until the last is added and the effect of twinkling gorgeousness is complete.
Until last year, I’d extravagantly chosen one of the posh, low needle drop species, the Nordman or Fraser Fir for preference. They are gorgeously thick and bushy, and they really don’t drop needles. They are ridiculously expensive though, so I reverted last year to the classic Norway Spruce and I wasn’t sorry. I’d forgotten how intoxicatingly scented they are. Yes I had needles all over the carpet by the end, but it was a beautiful tree and half the price of an equivalently-sized Fraser Fir.
I have to have mistletoe somewhere in the scheme, even if it’s only a small bunch, as it’s the official flower of my home county of Herefordshire (naturally, as it grows prolifically in apple trees, so can be seen throughout the area’s cider orchards). It is actually quite hard to come by on a country stroll, since it grows at height. The cheapest source I’ve found for it these days is at farm shops. Many cider makers sell mistletoe at Christmas, or will give you a bunch if you purchase some of their cider, which is scarcely a hardship.
We used to observe the old tradition of keeping the bunch of mistletoe in the house for the whole year, until the following Christmas (and I still do). It wasn’t until I came to write this article that it occurred to me to look up why. Apparently it’s to protect the house from lightning or fire. Well, no fires’ or lightning strikes so far, so it must be true!
You can be ambitious with your greens and make wreaths and garlands, or you can keep it simple and fill vases mixed with cut flowers such as white roses it will look very elegant.
You don’t have to have any aptitude for floristry to make this traditional look work. Even a bit of ivy trailed over a light fitting, or twisted through napkin rings, will be effective.
I’ve made a centrepiece for the mantel, using a block of oasis and a bowl. It makes for a dramatic focal point, and you can add flowers, ribbons, candles and floristry picks as you please.
Pomanders made from oranges stuck with cloves are striking amongst the green, and these hurricane lanterns have been filled with slices of dried citrus fruits. They give off a lovely scent when warmed by the candles. I’ve used rosehips from the hedgerow to add some bright red.
Rosehips make a great alternative to holly berries, which by December have usually been snaffled by the birds. Quite rightly too, they are more deserving of them than we who just want to make our homes look pretty this Christmas.
So what do you think? Do you like to bring in traditional greenery at Christmas? Do you prefer a real or an artificial tree? Let us know in the comments!