“The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown.”
Christmas is one time of the year when most of us probably practice one ancient custom or another. I’ll soon be cutting branches, loaded with berries, from the bush I’ve been encouraging in my herb garden for the past 10 years. The custom of using holly decorations goes back to ancient times.
It is thought that the use of holly as a Christmas decoration was adopted by early Roman Christians from the Roman festival of Saturnalia. Its origin has also been linked to the Druids, who brought evergreens into their homes in winter for the sylvan spirits. Early Christian legend maintained that the Cross on which Christ was crucified was made of holly wood, and the Crown of Thorns of holly leaves, the red berries representing the blood of Christ.
In Medieval Europe holly was associated with good fortune: trees planted near homes were said to offer protection from thunder and lightning. The berries and leaves were used to ward off witchcraft and the evil eye. Like several other native trees it was felt to have protective properties, and there were taboos against cutting down a whole tree. Hollies were frequently left uncut in hedges when these were trimmed. A more arcane reason for this was to obstruct witches who were known to run along the tops of hedges, though more practically farmers used their distinctive evergreen shapes to establish lines of sight during winter ploughing. In 1861, it is reported that the Duke of Argyll even had a prospective road rerouted to avoid cutting down a distinctive old holly.
In some parts of Britain, holly was formerly referred to merely as “Christmas,” and in pre-Victorian times ‘Christmas trees’ meant holly bushes. In Wales, family quarrels are thought to occur if holly is brought into the house prior to Christmas Eve. If decorations are left up beyond New Year’s or Twelfth Night it is said that a misfortune will occur for each leaf and branch remaining. Taking holly into the home of a friend or picking holly in blossom will cause death, legend has it. In Germany, it is unlucky to step on the berries. A severe winter will occur if holly berries are plentiful. A sprig of holly kept from the Church decorations will bring good fortune throughout the year. Similarly, if holly is hung in the barn, animals will fatten and thrive. If holly is picked on Christmas Day, it will serve as protection against witches and evil spirits.
For a longer decorative life, treat holly as you would any cut flower. After bringing it into your home, dip it in cool, fresh water and then place it in a vase of water. Misting daily will help preserve its freshness. Keep it as cool as possible, out of direct sunlight, and away from sun or heat. And above all, enjoy this symbol of the season.