They were originally used in pre-Christian times to help celebrate the Winter Solstice Festival, to ward off evil spirits and celebrate new growth.
When Christianity arrived in Western Europe, some people wanted to keep the greenery, to give it Christian meanings, but also to ban the use of it to decorate homes. However, Britain and Germany led the way to keep the use of the greenery as decorations.
Prickly holly leaves are said to represent the crown of thorns that Jesus wore when he was crucified. The berries are the drops of blood that were shed by Jesus because of the thorns.
In pagan times, holly was thought to be a male plant and ivy a female plant. One old English tradition suggested that which ever one was brought into the house first over winter indicated whether the man or woman of the house would rule that year! But it was unlucky to bring either into a house before Christmas Eve.
Because mistletoe remains green throughout the year, it was regarded as a plant with magical healing powers and fertility. The association between mistletoe and fertility is thought to have started the custom of kissing under mistletoe, and was eventually extended to wedding ceremonies.
Victorian England also adopted the ‘kissing’ tradition, and if a girl refused a kiss while standing under mistletoe, it was said that she wouldn’t receive any marriage proposals during the following year. Many people also avoided her because they believed she would probably end up an old maid!
It is traditional to take down the decorations after Twelfth Night January 5, on Epiphany, January 6. But during the middle ages, greenery including mistletoe was often left hanging up until early February!