The kissing bough was one of the most popular Christmas decorations in Tudor times. Similar to wreaths, Tudor Christmas boughs were woven from ash or willow wood and then covered in evergreen foliage. They were often hung on walls or over doorways as a gesture of goodwill – to welcome guests into the home.
The boughs gave birth to the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe – which was first documented in the 16th century. We visited the castle and gardens at Kenilworth, to learn how to recreate this Tudor decoration at home.
Make your own Tudor Christmas Bough
We would love to see your homemade Kissing Boughs and wreaths – share them with us on Twitter @EnglishHeritage.
What you’ll need:
- Other foliage depending on availability – for example, ivy, rosehips, mistletoe, rosemary
- Florist wire (or other thin wire)
- Fruit for decoration (we used a pear)
- Gardener’s gloves
Step 1 – Pick your foliage
For the Tudors, evergreen plants had a symbolic value as well as being aesthetically pleasing. Depending on the size of your bough you’ll need around 2 kg of greenery.
- Holly has carried Christian symbolism since medieval times, but its association with winter celebrations almost certainly pre-dates Christianity. It is thought that the Druids used holly in pagan rituals during the winter solstice, and interpreted its evergreen colour as a symbol of eternal life.
- Ivy is said to represent dependence, endurance, faithfulness and is closely linked to holly in Christmas imagery, as expressed in the well-known carol “The Holly and the Ivy”.
- Rosemary has connections to the Virgin Mary who is symbolised by her blue cloak because of its blue flowers. This fragrant herb is also associated with remembrance (particularly for the dead) and love.
- Mistletoe is said to increase life and fertility, dating back to an ancient Norse legend. According to custom, the mistletoe must not touch the ground between its cutting and its removal as the last of Christmas greens at Candlemas.
Step 2 – Create your circles
Begin by tying a few stalks of holly together with the wire. Add a few pieces at a time, slowly building a circle. Make sure you fix the pieces together firmly with the wire, as this will make the main body of the wreath.
Repeat this process to create a second circle of foliage, roughly the same size as the first one.
Step 3 – Fix the frame together
Push one of the circles inside the other at a perpendicular angle, and tie them together at the top and bottom with string – from above and below it should look like an X.
Now that the main frame of the bough is complete, add in more holly, berries, mistletoe or rosehips to any gaps or sparse areas using wire or string.
Step 4 – Add a centrepiece
Cut a piece of wire long enough to push through the middle of your piece of fruit with enough left on either side to twist into a loop above it.
Thread another piece of wire or string through the loop and fix it to the top of the bough, so the fruit hangs in the centre.
You can also put mistletoe in the centre of your bough. Tradition has it that for each kiss stolen under the bough, a berry was removed – once all the berries were gone, so too were the kisses.
Step 5 – Hang your Tudor Christmas bough
Finally, tie a loop of string or ribbon around the top of the bough – make it as long or as short as you need to hang the bough in position in your porch, hallway or as a decoration above the dining table.
Kissing boughs at Kenilworth Castle
Queen Elizabeth I gave Kenilworth Castle to one of her favourites at court – Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester in 1563. It was here that Dudley attempted to woo the Queen, so the Kissing Bough is an aptly romantic reminder of Kenilworth’s Elizabethan heyday.
This winter at Kenilworth, the team will be making traditional swags, wreaths, and boughs to dress the castle in greenery for Christmas. Join them on the 12 and 13 December for Christmas at the Castle– a weekend of crafts, storytelling and carols.
At Kenilworth Castle you can also scale the heights of the tower built to woo Queen Elizabeth I, enjoy the pretty Elizabethan garden and marvel at the mighty Norman keep. The castle is open at weekends from 10am – 4pm throughout the winter, and is also open between Christmas and New Year. See full opening times here.
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