The practice of using Christmas greenery was originally rejected by the early Christian church. The church authorities sought to suppress the uses of greenery, especially mistletoe, which was seen as being particularly pagan. Greenery was banned at the Second Council of Braga.
The new converts from paganism apparently clung to their previous practices, particularly in Northern Europe and England. So the church eventually lifted the ban and assigned new meanings to these pagan customs.
After they converted to Christianity, the Norsemen, Anglo-Saxons and others continued to decorate their halls with evergreen boughs for the winter. However, as the generations passed, they slowly forgot that this had originally been tied with the pagan attempts to defy the winter’s ability to kill.
The reverence for the plants and greenery was expressed in English songs from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Over time, the greenery was also used in churches as well by the 16th century.
Of themselves, boughs of greenery had come to represent hospitality and peace. This helps to explain why these were carried by messengers, heralds, and negotiators to show their peaceful intentions. People also believed that greenery served as protection from evil, especially evil spirits, witches, and the like. It was good to have protection during this era because the common belief was that these creatures were most active in the winter season. Others believed that “a mischievous wood sprite” was supposedly concealed in each sprig, but kept quiet during the holidays. He would then return after Twelfth Night when the decorations were taken down.
According to common belief, it was bad luck to bring greenery in the house before Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. During the Christmas season, it brought good luck to the household.
In some areas people kept the decorations up until Candelmas on February 2nd. English poet Robert Herrick in the 17th century cautioned that leaving them up so long would surely bring trouble. He wrote, “So many goblins you shall see.”
As with holly and certain other types of greenery used at this time of year, people were urged to dispose of them in a safe manner in order to avoid bad luck.
The modern use of greenery at Colonial Williamsburg dates back to the first Christmas tree in the community. This was set up by Charles Minnegrode. Now Colonial Williamsburg is widely known for its fruit garlands and wreaths and other Christmas decorations.
This type of arrangement was a special use of Christmas greenery and other materials. It was considered a precursor of the Christmas tree when the greenery was arranged in the form of a pyramid. This contained a mix of greenery, fruits, and other items. It originated in Germany.
It was used to display gifts, food, and decorations. It was called by various names in different countries. It was typically a small pyramid or triangle with small posts or poles joined together with shelves that held the items. Often the largest shelf of all, which was the bottom one, was used for the Nativity scene. Other items that were displayed could include flags, apples, candles, figurines, Christmas cards, evergreen boughs, nuts, cookies, and apples. At the top would be a pine cone or star. Figurines might include angels and soldiers.
The Christmas pyramid enjoyed its widest popularity in the 17th century. Originally this was hung from the ceiling. Later, it was displayed on tabletops.
This spread from Germany to elsewhere in Europe, particularly England and Italy. The German settlers brought it to the U.S. The Moravians in Pennsylvania used it around the 1740s. Over time in the 17th and 18th century, the pyramid was largely replaced by the Christmas tree in Germany. After the Christmas tree gained such popularity in the 19th century, this lost its popularity except in Italy.