St Barbara’s Twigs: Christmas decorations from the greenery in our gardens

“So we cut a few branches like this,” my father would say every year. He was taking cuttings from our forsythia bush that was now bare.

“And then we put them in some warm water for a few hours.”

He would leave them in the sink for about half a day and then would put them on a tall vase on Granny’s little brass table. “See those little buds? They’ll gradually open. Now watch every day.”

Watching the little spurts of yellow grow bigger every day was almost as exciting as opening the advent calendar. The flowers would slowly open. And then on Christmas Day we had forsythia in bloom. It seemed like a miracle.

Imagine my surprise then, when a few years later I read all about St Barbara’s twigs. I became a teacher of German and one day on one of my visits to Germany I picked up a book about German Christmas traditions and recipes. And there it was: St Barbara’s twigs.

St Barbara’s day is December 4. She was condemned by her father for becoming a Christian. In her cell she found a dried up cherry tree branch. She gave it a little water every day and then just shortly before she was to be executed, it blossomed.

So, the trick is to pick your branches on December 4. Soak them in tepid water for three hours and then put then in a vase with luke-warm water. Try to keep them in an ambient temperature. With luck, they will bloom on Christmas Day. In fact, if they do blossom precisely on Christmas Day, it is supposed to mean that you will have a good year.

I don’t know how my father did it but our forsythia twigs always bloomed on Christmas day.

My father wasn’t one for paper chains and crepe paper. He always liked to have natural decorations. Of course this involved a real Christmas tree. “And just plain globes and white lights,” he insisted.

Usually around the end of the first week of Advent he would take us out into the countryside where we would collect, holly, ivy, mistletoe and anything else interesting which we would then take home and make into lovely decorations. All the pictures in the house would be adorned with greenery as well.

What a delight it was when we lived in Holland for a while and some of us women gathered together to make Christmas decorations from the greenery in our gardens – and drink red wine!

We’ve carried on the tradition of the St Barbara’s twigs and the Christmas greenery. When the children were little we would go off on our bikes to find material for our decorations.

These days, though, we’re rarely at home for Christmas. At least we shall be this year, thanks to Covid, for the first time in our new home in Bury. And we planted a forsythia bush in the garden earlier this year. Hopefully we can make a few twigs bloom on Christmas Day.

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