Other than fitting nicely into song lyrics, what does holly have to do with the celebration of Christmas? Quite a lot, it turns out.
As usual, it was my granddaughter Holly, who sparked the question. We were listening to my Christmas playlist the other day, and her ears perked up when she heard her name being sung. (Otherwise the playlist is incredibly boring to this near tween girl.) “Are they talking about a person or a plant?” asked the precocious granddaughter of an avid gardener. Too good of an opening to miss, I sprung into my teacher's hat and shared everything I knew about the history of holly, ivy and mistletoe at Christmas.
The species of holly that we have come to associate with the Christmas season is Ilex aquifolium, a native plant of northern Europe where it has been prized throughout history. In the 3rd century BCE, the druids, the priests, teachers and judges of the Celtic people, used holly branches as magic wands, wore holly garlands as they went into the woods to celebrate the winter solstice and taught the people to plant holly next to their homes. Holly, they believed, had such strong magical powers; it could ward off the ghosts and demons prowling the earth in the dead of winter.
Celtic folktales also tell of the battles between the Holly King and the Oak King. The Holly King ruled the earth from the summer to the winter solstice and the Oak King ruled the earth from the winter solstice to the summer. Each year at the height of the winter solstice, the two clash in a brutal battle to determine who will rule the earth. Despite his heroic efforts, the Holly King, (who looks much like Santa dressed in earth tones) is defeated and the Oak King begins his reign.
Thor, the god of thunder in Norse mythology, carried holly branches and wore crowns and garlands of holly. The Norse people believed that holly protected them from lightning strikes. While taking a branch or two from a holly tree was permitted, cutting down a tree was forbidden as it brought bad luck. Interestingly, scientists today have determined that the prickles on the ends of male holly leavers really do conduct electricity, so a holly tree is a type of lightning rod.
Scots hung sprigs of holly over their doors to keep evil influences at bay and to prevent demons from entering their homes. They also believed that during the frigid winter months, fairies lived within the protection of holly trees. If you brought a branch inside, you could bring some of the fairies into the warmth of your home, In return for the gift of warmth, the fairies would bring you good luck.
The Scottish people also believed that fairies lived within the protection of holly tree. By placing a silver coin at the base of a holly tree during the winter months, the fairies would remain there and you would be assured of good luck all year long.
The Romans offered holly branches to Saturn, the god of agriculture, during the festival of Saturnalia. The festival celebrating the sowing of seed and the upcoming spring harvest began on December 17th and continued until December 23rd. In addition to its magical powers, the vivid green leaves and red berries symbolized abundance and renewal.
During this same time, early Christians were facing persecution and death from the Romans. In the hope of avoiding both physical danger, Christians began hanging boughs of holly to conceal their illicit beliefs. Their understanding of the symbolism of the holly however, evolved to align with their faith. To them, the thorns on the edges of the leaves represented the crown of thorns Jesus wore and the red His droplets of blood.
As time progressed, the legends and symbolism of the holly plant gradually changed. Beliefs in its magical powers faded and appreciation for its beauty and its hardiness began to take center stage. Carols, like Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly, were being sung and holly rather than pine trees were festooned with candles and trinkets. Holly wreaths were hung inside and out to spread holiday cheer. Today, holly, both live and artificial, has become an integral part of our Christmas decor featured in wreaths, garlands and table decorations.
While I was hoping to expand my granddaughter’s knowledge, I have to admit that once we reached the magic wand portion of my explanation, I lost her. She became more concerned with going outside and finding some holly to cut. In retrospect, I understand her point of view. After all, a magic wand could be very useful, especially at Christmas!