"Down with the rosemary, and so
Down with the bays and mistletoe;
Down with the holly, ivy, all,
Wherewith ye dress'd the Christmas Hall"
"Ceremony upon Candlemas Eve"
Robert Herrick (1591–1674)
Twelfth Night (January 5) is upon us and it’s time to take down the decorations.
There’s lots of wonderful history attached to decorations dating back to Pagan times. I’ve always been fascinated by old customs and decided to look a few of them up, and it’s amazing what you find out.
People would bring in greenery – including live trees or strings of ivy – into their homes because they believed the plants were inhabited by spirits who needed somewhere warm to stay during the cold winter. Bells would be hung in the trees (when one rang, you knew a spirit was there) along with food and treats for them to eat.
Good spirits were also associated with the holly plant, and ivy – despite associations with Bacchus, the Roman god of living it up – was thought to be able to protect against plague and evil.
But if you left the greenery in your home after Twelfth Night – and therefore, by default, the spirits – then they would cause trouble in the home until they were released. Others thought that if the greenery was not returned to the countryside spring would not appear, and neither would the crops.
This year we put some of our stacks of ivy climbing the fence to good use, cutting it down and hanging it in bright swags around the front room. Far, far, better than tinsel. Dried rosemary sticks were threaded with chillies, orange slices and bay leaves and hung around, giving off a fabulous scent when the fire was in full flow and they heated up.
And the scent got even stronger when we put it on the fire last night to burn the last of the decorations. Bonus.
Twelfth Night is also associated with the draining of wassail bowls of a drink called “Lamb’s wool” made of sugar, ginger, nutmeg and beer. It would be drunk by wassailers. Looks good, too. That's my weekend project sorted...
• 1.5 Litres (3 x 500ml bottles) of traditional real ale – or traditional cider
• 6 small cooking apples, cored (Bramley apples)
• 1 nutmeg freshly grated
• 1 tsp ground ginger
• 150g brown sugar (demerara)
Preheat the oven 120C
Core the apples and get rid of the pips. Cook at 120c for an hour.
In a big saucepan, add the sugar and pour enough booze in to cover. Stir until the sugar is dissolved. Add spices and stir, adding in the rest of the alcohol
Leave on a gentle heat for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, scoop out the flesh of the appeals and mash it up, adding it into the saucepan. Heat through for 30 minutes then whisk quickly until everything froths up. The idea is that it looks like lamb’s wool