Christianity became civilly established in the fourth century, and the festivals held in honour of Bacchus and other heathen deities at the Christmas season of the year gradually fell into decay. The primitive teachers of the Christian religion prohibited these scenes of festivity as being unsuited to the character of their founder, but on the formation of a regular hierarchy, supported by political power, the introduction of particular festivals, adapted to the respective periods of the pagan ones, soon became general. Thus by adopting the obsolete feasts of the Greeks and Romans, and adapting them to the most striking events in the lives of Christ and his notable followers, the prejudices of the pagan worshippers were shaken, and numerous converts obtained. Unfortunately these festival saint days at length became so numerous under the Papal authority, that the days of the year were not sufficiently numerous for their celebration. However, since the Reformation, the far greater portion have sunk into oblivion, and are only known by referring to the old calendars of the Saints. Yet the principal ones commemorated in honour of Christ are still retained, though not celebrated with the same festivity and show as in former times. Among these Christmas Day may be considered the most important. The first festival of this kind ever held in Britain, it is said, was celebrated by King Arthur in the city of York, A.D. 521. Previously to this year the 25th of December was dedicated to Satan, or to the heathen deities worshipped during the dynasties of the British, Saxon, and Danish Kings. In the year 521 this chivalrous monarch won the battle of Badan Hills, when 90,000 (?) of the enemy were slain, and the city of York was delivered up to him. He took up his winter quarters there, and held the festival of Christmas. The churches which lay levelled to the ground he caused to be rebuilt, and the vices attendant on heathenish feasts were banished from York for ever. As if in memory of its origin this county, Yorkshire seems to preserve the festivities of Christmas with more ancient hospitality than any other part of Great Britain. But everywhere the spirit of Christmas festivity has been broken; the old customs die one by one, and Yuletide is now, much more a general holiday, with plum pudding, presents, and paid bills as specialities, than anything religious and historic.
The custom of decorating churches, streets, and private houses with holly and evergreens at Christmas still prevails among us; and in these decorations mistletoe occupies a place of peculiar significance. Vergil compares the golden bough in Infernis to the misletoe, and there is evidence that the use of this plant-parasite was not unknown to the ancients in their religious ceremonies, particularly the Greeks, of whose poets Vergil was the acknowledged imitator. It is certain that misletoe was held in high respect by the Northern nations of Europe, the Celts and the Goths being distinctive in their veneration about the time of the year when the Sun approaches the Winter Solstice. That the Druids in Britain regarded misletoe with a religious eye is too well-known to need further remark; but they were accustomed to decorate at 'Xmas time with all kinds of green plants, and the Church took over this practice, in some cases making an exception of the misletoe. Brand, however, is of opinion, although Gay mentions the misletoe among those evergreens that were put up in Churches, it never entered these sacred edifices but by mistake, or ignorance of the sextons; for it was the heathenish or profane plant, as having been of such distinction in the pagan rites of Druidism, and it therefore had its place assigned it in kitchens, where it was hung up in great state with its white berries; and whatever female chanced to stand under it, the young man present either had a right or claimed one of saluting her, and of plucking off a berry at each kiss. "I have made many diligent inquiries after the truth of this. I learnt, at Bath, that it never came into church there. An old sexton at Teddington in Middlesex informed me that some misletoe was once put up in the church there, but was by the clergyman immediately ordered to be taken away."
Over against this opinion must be put that of Stukeley in his Medallic History of Carausius, where he mentions the introduction of misletoe into York Cathedral on Christmas Eve as a remain of Druidism. Speaking of the Winter Solstice, our Christmas, he says: "This was the most respectable festival of our Druids, called Yule-tide; when misletoe, which they called All-heal, was carried in their hands and laid on their altars, as an emblem of the salutiferous advent of Messiah. This misletoe they cut off the trees with their upright hatchets of brass, called Celts, put upon the ends of their staffs, which they carried in their hands. Innumerable are these instruments found all over the British Isles.
"The custom is still preserved in the North, and was lately at York: on the Eve of Christmas-Day they carry Misletoe to the high Altar of the Cathedral, and proclaim a public and universal liberty, pardon, and freedom to all sorts of inferior and even wicked people at the gates of the city, towards the four quarters of Heaven."
The policy of the early Christian ecclesiastic seems to have been that of accepting prevalent customs by giving them a Christian interpretation; but where a complete acceptance might defeat his purpose, he drew a hard and fast line of separation. Thus Brand refers to the Council of Bracara as forbidding Christians to deck their houses with bay leaves and green boughs, but this prohibition extended only to their doing it at the same time as the Pagans. The use of misletoe in churches, a Druid sacred plant, might easily injure the faith of the members, so that its prohibition in some centres is easily understood. But an unusual plant, once put to unusual and withal religious uses cannot easily lose its position in human ceremonial; and when we find it in the home for osculatory purposes--the essence of the misletoe idea to-day--we can without much imagination see how the change came about. Stow in his Survey of London supplies an interesting picture of 'Xmas decorations in the past centuries. He says that "against the Feast of Christmas every man's house, as also their parish churches, were decked with holme, ivy, bayes, and whatsoever the season of the year afforded to be green. The conduits and standards in the streets were likewise garnished; among the which I read that in the year 1444 by tempest of thunder and lightning, towards the morning of Candlemas Day, at the Leadenhall in Cornhill, a Standard of tree, being set up in the midst of the pavement, fast in the ground, nailed full of holme and ivie, for disport of Christmass to the people, was torne up and cast down by the malignant Spirit (as was thought), and the stones of the pavement all about were cast in the streets, and into divers houses, so that the people were sore aghast at the great tempests."
Bourne observes that this custom of adorning the windows at this season with bay and laurel is but seldom used in the North; but in the South, particularly at our Universities, it is very common to deck not only the common windows of the town, but also the chapels of the colleges, with branches of laurel, which was used by the ancient Romans as the emblem of Peace, Joy, and Victory. In the Christian sense it may be applied to the victory gained over the Powers of Darkness by the coming of Christ.