Published: 15-03-2010, 08:43


Holly springs up all around us at Christmas time. It ornaments to-day’s CHRISTMAS CARDS, WREATHS, WRAPPING PAPER, and other Christmas decorations. Although holly serves as a very contemporary symbol of the season, folklorists trace holly’s association with Christmas back to ancient times.

Evergreen plants, such as holly, IVY, and pine, stay green all year round. For many ancient peoples, this special property converted these plants into seasonal reminders of the promise of rebirth or eternal life. Many writers believe that the pagan peoples of northern Europe decorated their homes with GREENERY during their winter festival, YULE. Perhaps they wished to honor and imitate holly’s triumph over the dark and the cold, for the plant not only remains green during the winter but also bears bright red fruit during this harsh season. Further south, the Romans also decorated their homes with greenery during their winter festival, SATURNALIA. In addition, friends exchanged sprigs of holly and other evergreens as tokens of friendship and good wishes for the upcoming new year.

Some folklorists think that holly and ivy represented the male and female principles in nature to the pagan peoples of northern Europe. These old beliefs may have lingered on in song and folklore long after Christianity conquered the northern lands. A good number of English songs from the Middle Ages and Renaissance depict a rivalry between holly and ivy in which holly represents masculinity and ivy, femininity. In early Christian times, the Church resisted the pagan European custom of making seasonal decorations out of winter greenery. The sixth-century second Council of Braga forbade Christians the use of green boughs in home decoration.
As time went on, however, Christianity adopted the holly and ivy of pagan winter celebrations, molding their significance to fit Christian beliefs. One authority states that early northern European Christians interpreted holly as a symbol of the Virgin MARY’s love for God. Its spiky leaves and blood-red berries also served to remind Christians that JESUS would end his days wearing a crown of thorns. The words to the CHRISTMAS CAROL titled “The Holly and the Ivy” illustrate similar Christian reinterpretations of these seasonal symbols. After the older beliefs about the plant had faded, some Christian authorities suspected that the word “holly” must be related to the word “holy,” a belief that would support their interpretations of its connection with the CHRISTMAS SEASON. They were mistaken. The modern English word “holly” comes from the older terms for the plant — hollin, holin, and holme — and before that, from the Anglo-Saxon word for holly, holegn.

Old British folklore attributed a variety of special powers to holly. In medieval times, practitioners of folk medicine used holly to treat many conditions, including fever, rheumatism, gout, and asthma. (Holly berries are poisonous, however.) Picking holly on Christmas Day could enhance its medicinal properties. In addition, holly warded off evil spirits. A medieval traveler who had lost his way might shelter under a holly tree for protection against unseen dangers. Placed on doors and around windowsills, holly’s spiny leaves would snag any evil spirit that tried to enter the house. One custom advised unmarried women to place a sprig of holly beside their beds on Christmas Eve as protection against witches or goblins. A sprig of holly inside the house might also shield the householders from fire and storms. Holly that had been used in church decorations was believed to be especially powerful. It could confer luck, peace, or happiness, according to English folk beliefs, and protect against lightning, according to German folk beliefs.
Traces of the old association with masculinity and the battle of the sexes lingered on in holly lore. English folklore deemed prickly holly “male” and non-prickly holly “female.” (Holly plants are indeed sexed, but the sex difference does not manifest itself in this way). If male holly was brought into the house first, the husband would rule during the upcoming year, and if female holly entered first, the wife would rule. Several hundred years ago, English folk custom still connected competing figures known as the “holly boy” and the “ivy girl” with a number of wintertime observances. During this same period, the Welsh observed “Holming Day” on December 26 with another customary battle of the sexes in which men hit women’s bare arms with holly branches (see also ST. STEPHEN’S DAY). According to folk belief, holly dealt good luck to men, while ivy granted good luck to women.
Careless dealings with holly could turn good luck into bad, however. Some believed that cutting holly at any other time than Christmas brought bad luck. Bringing holly into the house for Christmas decorations also required special care. Some thought it unlucky to bring it in before Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. The withered greens must also be disposed of respectfully. Some believed that they should be burned. Others thought that burning them drew bad luck and that feeding them to cattle might preserve good luck. Still others felt they should simply be left to decay on their own. Sometimes a sprig of holly was saved for the following year, when it was used to light the fire under the next year’s Christmas pudding (see also PLUM PUDDING).
Holly, often alongside its mate, ivy, served as an important CHRISTMAS SYMBOL during the nineteenth century. The Victorians wove it into KISSING BOUGHS, greenery swags, and other seasonal home adornments, and embellished many a Christmas card with its image. Today, some Americans still hang a wreath of holly on their front doors at Christmas. In Britain many people place similar wreaths on the graves of the family dead at this time of year. In addition, holly continues to trim contemporary holiday decorations, symbolizing for many the mirth of the season. The old yet still popular Christmas carol, “Deck the Halls,” expresses this connection between holly and revelry.