The Hanging of the Greens

The church where we worship does an annual “Hanging of the Greens” service on the first Sunday of Advent.

The Hanging of the Greens was never a part of my tradition growing up, so having come at this for the first time last year basically cold, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. The idea of a special service structured around decorating the church building with all the bits of essentially extraneous greenery we’ve stuck onto the celebration of Christmas seemed a little weird.

I mean, from a certain perspective it hardly seems all that relevant to the great events surrounding the birth of the Rescuer. What do holly and mistletoe have to do with Jesus?

Isn’t it just an expression of the same syncretic Mediæval impulse that allowed Father Christmas and his reindeer into the story?

Well, I might be being unfair. Certainly holly and ivy have little to do with the Biblical story, and Christmas trees only really share a name with the big event. But if we removed from our celebration of Christmas everything that didn’t directly reference the Bible, we wouldn’t have much left. No snow, no sleigh bells, no carols and no candles. No trees, wreaths or decorations. No Santa, no elves, no reindeer, no stockings, possibly no presents, certainly no cards. No irritating and ridiculous Christmas No. 1 single, no fairy lights, no robins or cardinals, no turkey with all the trimmings. No Christmas pudding, mince pies, Christmas cookies, egg nog or chestnuts.

It might even be at a totally different time of year; after all, it was the early Church’s decision to commandeer the Roman Saturnalia that set the date of Christmas to begin with.

We might have more of a commemoration than a celebration, and we might not even have that much. After all, birthdays aren’t mentioned in the Bible at all, much less as a cause for celebration.

Certainly, too, all of these things can be a distraction from the real story. Or at least, that’s what we’re told. Personally I’m starting to wonder about that: if we are following Jesus, it’s only natural to make Him the centre of the festivities no matter what kind of trimmings we surround them with, and it’s kind of strange to expect people who don’t believe and don’t follow to get it without being told. If we didn’t have all the trimmings surrounding it, Christians might be the only ones who cared about Christmas, and we’d lose a God-given opportunity to tell people about why we have a celebration at all.

Yes, a lot of the “Greens” from the Hanging of the Greens have their roots in Northern European pagan traditions. Holly, ivy and mistletoe have Druidic associations. Bringing a fir tree into the house and decorating it may come from the Norse. But just like the Saturnalia has been Christ’s Birthday for long enough that very few even remember that it was once a festival dedicated to the god Saturn, so most of the Greens have very few, if any, lingering pagan associations in the minds of most people. If anything, the “pagan” associations of Christmas trappings these days are with the commercialism of Mammon, and those are more tied to Santa and reindeer than holly and ivy.

The Christmas Greens were sort of baptised and imbued with Christian symbolism during the early Middle Ages. Holly was stripped of its Druidry and became a simple pointer to the events of the Biblical story, as in the old English carol The Holly and the Ivy: “The holly bears a blossom/As white as any flower/And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ/To be our sweet Saviour”. It’s fairly simple – physical characteristics of the holly are used as a mnemonic for aspects of the Christmas story – but for Mediæval illiterates, it’s exactly what was needed. Here is something you can see, and here is how it points to what you can’t.

And I guess that’s the point. It’s exactly the same, in principle, as Communion, it’s just of a lesser antiquity and authority. Bread and (ersatz) wine symbolically standing in for the body and blood of the Lord Jesus are swapped out for holly prickles and berries representing the crown of thorns that Jesus came to wear and the blood He came to shed for us, and fir trees whose evergreen boughs represent the faithfulness of God in promising that a Deliverer would come and in fulfilling His promises.

It’s still a little odd, but that’s just because we never did it when I was growing up. And I have to say that in some ways it’s better than the total failure to acknowledge the season at all that many nontraditional (American) churches seem in danger of.

I have to wonder about the thinking behind this. At the one time of the year when people who don’t normally come to church just might spontaneously come in wanting to sing some carols, we give them…Oceans. A song that is difficult to sing anyway and which they stand no chance of knowing.

I mean, we don’t have to sing Jingle Bells or Jolly Old Saint Nicholas or anything, but if you sit down and actually read the words of Hark the Herald Angels Sing or O Come All Ye Faithful, they speak truth. They tell the real story. They point beyond the crass commercialism and the corporate spirit of buying and selling, back to what it’s really about. And they invite worship of the newborn King.

If I have to choose between the Hanging of the Greens and the Ignoring of the Season, I’ll pick the Greens every time.

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