The holly plant has a long symbolic history dating as far back as the Druids. Holly is known for its vibrant red color and prickly green leaves. The lush green plant and its red berries are a popular ornament for those looking to share the Christmas spirit. Historically, the Druids hung it on windows and doorways to fend off evil witches and spirits.
Holly was considered to be a sacred plant by the Druids, long before Christians adopted the tradition. While other plants wilted in winter weather, holly remained green and strong, its berries a brightly colored red in the harshest of conditions.
Holly was also a symbol of fertility and eternal life to the Druids, and thought to have magical powers. Per Druid lore, cutting down a holly tree could bring bad luck. However, hanging holly in their homes was believed to bring good luck and protection. The ancient Romans associated the holly plant with Saturn, the god of harvest and agriculture. This celebration was originally marking the end of Autumn and was moved later into December to the winter Solstice. The Romans also “decked the halls” with holly during the festival of Saturnalia.
Holly has been associated with males and is considered to bring men good luck and protection; the female counterpart to holly is ivy. The famous English Christmas carol, “The Holly and the Ivy,” uses the holly to symbolize the birth of Christ. A verse states “The holly bears a berry, As red as any blood, And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ, To do poor sinners good.” Another verse states “The Holly bears a prickle, As sharp as any thorn, And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ, On Christmas Day in the morn” [source: The Hymns and Carols of Christmas].
Christmas Eve was originally deemed templa exornatur, meaning “churches are decked,” by the early Christians who adopted the holly tradition from Druid, Celtic and Roman traditions, and its symbolism then changed to reflect Christian beliefs.
Today, Christians consider holly symbolic of Jesus Christ in two ways. The red berries represent the blood that Jesus shed on the cross on the day he was crucified. Legend states that holly berries were originally white, but that the blood Christ shed for the sins of humankind stained the berries forever red. A holly’s pointed leaves symbolize the crown of thorns placed on Jesus’ head before he died on the cross.
Let us not forget the Mistletoe (kissing ball), a Victorian creation made up of mistletoe, holly, greens, and ribbons. It is said to have encouraged even the most modest of English ladies to kiss or be kissed in public. If one was found standing under the kissing ball, custom says they have to give or receive a kiss or an embrace. Mistletoe, a parasitic plant, was believed by everyone from the Druids to the Greeks to have healing and life-generating powers.
Today we also use holly trees to create beautiful living fences for year round privacy screening. The holly trees can be trimmed a bit during the holiday season so you can make your own wreath or kissing ball. Or, you can go eco friendly by using a live holly tree as your holiday tree, then plant it in your yard afterwards.
So whatever holiday tradition you are celebrating this December, enjoy it with loving family and friends.