In many countries, such as Sweden, people start to set up their Advent and Christmas decorations on the first day of Advent. In many churches this is done in a formal ceremony, the Hanging of the Greens. The part of the service involves the hanging of various evergreen vegetation in the church buildings. These may be garlands, sprays or wreaths. The circular wreath conveys the symbol of everlasting life. In such services the symbolism of the various elements is supported and explained by passages from the Bible and other readings.
In the Western Christian world, the two traditional days when Christmas decorations are removed are Twelfth Night and if they are not taken down on that day, Candlemas. the latter of which ends the Christmas-Epiphany season in some denominations. Leaving the decorations up beyond Candlemas is historically considered to be inauspicious. Some seem to leave the decoration up until Candlemas because of confusion over how Twelfth night is reckoned.
The Church of England and the Anglican community insist Twelfth Night refers to the night before Epiphany, the day when the nativity story tells us that the three wise men visited the infant Jesus. However, many people believe Twelfth Night falls on Jan 6, at the end of the 12th day after Christmas, and so keep their decorations hanging in their homes for an extra day. The difference in opinion is said to be down to the fact that in centuries past, Christmas was deemed to start at sunset on Dec 24 and so the 12th night following it was Jan 5. Nowadays, people count from Dec 25 and so assume Twelfth Night falls on the 6th. Growing up, that way of reckoning Twelfth Night was what I encountered. People took down their decorations after Epiphany, also known as Three Kings Day. All his is important because their are several superstitions about taking them down at the wrong time bringing bad luck. It is said that if decorations are kept up after Twelfth Night, they must be kept up until the following Twelfth Night. Another superstition states if the decorations for the current Christmas are taken down before the New Year begins, bad luck shall befall the house for a whole year. It’s also said that Christmas decorations not taken down by Twelfth Night must be left up until Candlemas and then taken down.
One of the most famous decorations for Christmas is the Christmas tree. In some quarters it is explained as Christian usurpation of pagan traditions and rituals for the winter solstice. These included tree worship and the use of evergreens. The expression “Christmas tree” was first recorded in 1835. The modern Christmas tree tradition, though, may have begun as early as the 16th with Martin Luther while others say it did not come about until the 18th century. From Germany the custom was introduced to England, first by Queen Charlotte, wife of George III. It was made more popular by Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria, early in her reign. The 1840s image of the Queen’s decorated tree was republished in the U.S. and also served to spread the custom there as well.
Classic ornaments for the Christmas tree have long included glass ornaments. Figural glass Christmas ornaments originated in the small town of Lauscha, Germany in the late 19th century. The town had long produced fine glassware and the production of Christmas ornaments became a family affair for many people. Families often put in long days in production , as it was the sole source of income for them. Competitions were held and prizes were awarded to the family producing the finest examples. Santa Clauses, angels, birds, animals, toys and other traditional subjects were favorites. F.W. Woolworth discovered these glass ornaments on a toy and doll buying trip to Sonnenburg, Germany in the 1890s and sold them in his stores in America. The ornaments were said to have contributed to Woolworth’s great business success. For the American market, figures were blown depicting comic book characters as well as patriotic subjects such as Uncle Sams, eagles, and flags. Glass ornaments are still being created from these old molds.
In many countries representations of the Nativity scene are popular, both in homes and at churches. Within some families, the pieces used to make the nativity scene are considered valuable family heirlooms. Some churches also perform a live Nativity with volunteers and sometimes and even live animals.
And of course there is the Christmas stocking. According to legend, Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus, as he became known in the United States, would creep in through the chimney and slip small gifts and fruit into stockings hanging by the fireplace to dry. From the original plain stockings these have evolved into very elaborate decorated ones. The are also ornamental hangers of various sorts to suspend them from.