History of Holly Use
The holly plant has a long symbolic history dating as far back as the Druids. Hollies are well known for their vibrant red color and prickly green leaves. Historically, the Druids hung it on windows and doorways to fend off evil witches and spirits.
Long considered to be a sacred plant by the Druids well 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. The lush green plant and its red berries are a popular ornament for those looking to share the Christmas spirit.
Fertility and Religion
A symbol of fertility and eternal life to the Druids, they believed hollies to possess magical powers. Per Druid lore, cutting down a holly tree could bring bad luck. To bring good luck and protection, they hung holly in their homes. The ancient Romans associated the holly plant with Saturn, the god of harvest and agriculture. This celebration initially marked 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 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].
Initially, Christmas Eve was deemed templa exornatur, meaning “churches are decked,” by the early Christians who adopted the holly tradition from Druid, Celtic, and Roman traditions. 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 English ladies to kiss or be kissed in public. If found standing under the kissing ball, custom says they must give or receive a kiss or an embrace. Mistletoe is a parasitic plant, believed by everyone from the Druids to the Greeks to have healing and life-generating powers.
Also, we use holly trees to create beautiful living fences for year-round privacy screening. Trimming the holly trees a bit during the holiday season, 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 afterward.
So whatever holiday tradition you are celebrating this December, enjoy it with loving family and friends.