Tie in to tradition with timeless winter greenery
London is a city that is constantly changing. Just jump on the 243 bus route from Waterloo on the south bank of the Thames to Wood Green in the north. The route takes you past the Georgian Squares of Bloomsbury, past the bottom of Charles Dickens’s old street in Clerkenwell and, as it heads into Shoreditch, in view of the towering glass and steel skyscrapers of the City.
Jump off at Hoxton Station bus stop, though, and you can time-travel through Christmas. Here lies the Museum of the Home, a collection of 18th-century former almshouses. It’s one of the best ways to get an insight into how Londoners live — and have lived — through the centuries, and I’m nosy about these things.
Outside may have been a bright and hazy November afternoon but inside lay recreations of dwellings from 1630 to 1998 — an era that is, curiously, becoming a beacon of fashionable nostalgic charm. With its Winter Festival under way, the museum has decorated for Christmas. For all the shifts in furniture, wallpaper and dining decorum, one thing persisted: the presence of winter greenery.
In the powder blue 1830s drawing room exhibit, holly was neatly tucked behind the gilt frames of modest paintings. In a chic interwar living room, a small plastic tree, newly invented at the time, sat on a low sideboard. In the grand panelled dining hall, swags of bay and ivy adorned a hefty mantelpiece during a midwinter feast; it was meant to be from 400 years ago but, with the right filter, it could have been among the aspirational #bringtheoutsidein efforts filling up my Instagram feed.
Druids were probably the first to formalise decorating with evergreen foliage at the time of year when everything else turns dark and brown — but their reverence of holly, in particular, was shared by the Romans, who associated it with the god Saturn and made it into wreaths to exchange as gifts. This, with decorating their homes with ivy and larger outdoor plants with trinkets, was among the more winsome traditions of Saturnalia, the wild, week-long festival during which people filled statues up with olive oil, servants told their bosses exactly what they thought of them and everyone was encouraged to drink heavily in public.
Religious orders have waxed and waned on the suitability of celebrating with greenery ever since. Some early Christians considered it too pagan, while others encouraged it: in the sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great suggested churches take inspiration from pagan midwinter festivities and deck the religious halls with natural boughs.
As a gardener, I love that we cling to such an ancient tradition. December is not an easy time to garden. In a practical sense, the daylight hours are few and short, the ground is often too wet and cold to work properly and the jobs are unglamorous. It can be difficult to be lured outside by the prospect of seeing if a beloved tender plant has been killed by frost or giving tools a long-overdue clean. But seeing seasonal greenery brought inside puts it on a celebratory pedestal when, outside, nature is beginning its necessary retreat.
It also invites its own traditions. Perhaps you pick up an order of berries and foliage from your grocer or florist, or go out to forage your own — the same as people have done at this time of year for centuries. There would come a Sunday afternoon in early Advent when my mum would take herself off to a friend’s garage, carrying an Ikea bag of greenery that my dad had cut from the garden.
She’d return with wreaths, centrepieces and red cheeks. Ivy would be propped up on the nails left in the low beams of our house by previous occupants, sometimes from decades before. For a couple of weeks it would feel as if a forest was creeping into the house. As the foliage dried out with the central heating, it would smell a little like one too: the sweet tang of sap ushering in festive excitement.
In my own home, I’ve always had some kind of greenery in the house at this time of year. For a while I lived by the woods in south-east London and would make wonky wreaths from foraged foliage, surreptitiously whipping out the secateurs when no dog-walkers were in sight. Now I’m fortunate to have a back garden with a healthy wall of mature ivy, which comes in handy.
Foliage can be more difficult to find at source in the city but London’s early birds — both in terms of the day and the dawn of the season — can try their luck at New Covent Garden Flower Market, which since November has been stocked with forests of twisting hazel, spruce and pine along with the traditional sparkly owl ornaments. Armfuls of ilex berries, scented wax flowers and white pom-pom chrysanthemums can be found at Columbia Road Market on a Sunday afternoon; get there at 9am or 4pm to avoid the tourists. I like to stock up on bargain white hellebores in pots, which can be planted outside after Christmas.
Traditionally, we may have dressed up our homes to impress party guests, but the growing pressure to share our Christmas decorations on social media has seen a more professional gloss applied to what has always been a form of humble organic tinsel. Mantles are “scaped”, banisters are decked and front doors eclipsed by ever-larger wreaths. Sometimes I find it a little ersatz; as if our homes are not places to create our own version of joy, but to stage fashionably, like shop windows.
But a renewed focus on seasonal foliage has ushered invention, too. Seasonal floral designers offer modern wreaths that reflect the trend for a more natural look: dried Lunaria annua — or honesty — seed heads seem particularly popular this year, appearing in wreaths made by the Wiltshire-based Vervain and wreath kits from Milli Proust, based in West Sussex.
The collision of an interest in sustainability and a resurgence in a trend for dried flowers has meant the centuries-old hit of green enjoying a rather beige makeover in recent years. “Everlasting wreaths” — featuring nigella seed heads, bronzed bracken, fluffy bunny tail grasses and otherworldly moss varieties — promise to join the ranks of the other decorations that return from storage annually, as long as you store them well. I am, however, always wary of unearthing mine, convinced that it has become a luxurious home for a family of mice.
But I do relish this shift to celebrating the inevitability of natural decay over artificial perfection at Christmas; last year, I covered my mantel in a combination of dried hydrangea heads, flowering ivy, bundles of thyme and conifer cuttings and enjoyed watching it evolve as the days passed. The smell of freshly cut greenery is intoxicating but it’s the outdoors I miss the most in winter. A few short weeks of bringing it into the house tides me over until the snowdrops appear in the bleak tremor of new year.
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