Common holly (llex aquifolium) has a long history of use as a Christmas symbol.
You most often see it on Christmas cards, with its shiny, spiny dark green foliage and bright red berries. Garden centers also carry potted hollies as gift plants, decorated with artificial wax fruits, plus sprigs of freshly-harvested berried holly at outrageous prices you can place on a table during an Xmas feast, attach to a ceiling or wall or weave into a garland or a Christmas wreath. (Plastic holly is even more widely available and much cheaper!)
I’m somewhat jealous of people who can just go out into their garden and harvest their own holly sprigs. Where I live, even the hardiest evergreen hollies, like those of the China and Blue series (I. x meservae), are low-growing shrubs totally hidden by the snow at this season. Any branches that aren’t buried in white by now would have been killed back by the cold weeks ago (such is life in zone 3!).
But where does this tradition of holly as a Christmas plant come from?
Before the Christian Era
The tradition of decorating with holly towards the winter solstice is common to many peoples of central and northern Europe, notably the Celts. They saw in this tree, whose leaves remain green all winter and whose red fruits recall drops of blood, as a mysterious and powerful plant, one endowed with great healing potential. After all, its berries are poisonous and what is poison if not a hidden power? (Think like a druid before answering that one!) They even believed that holly trees repelled lightning!
One Celtic legend tells of two opposing twin brothers, the Holly King and the Oak King. The Holly King was seen as a giant bearing a crown of holly and carrying a club made of holly wood. He gradually assumed power every fall, bringing winter to the world, then at the winter solstice, the two brothers would fight and the Oak King would inevitably kill his brother and take over ruling the world, thus bringing back summer. Their roles were then be reversed at each summer solstice, thus bringing about the seasons as we know them.
It was common for Celts to wear crowns of holly at the festivities of both solstices, although I would think they’d be rather itchy.
Today some authorities believe that the Holly King was a precursor of Santa Claus.
To profit from the power of holly, Celts would hang holly sprigs in their windows and over the door to keep witches and evil spirits away. Since it was well known that only good people could enter a house protected by holly, holly gradually became a symbol of hospitality and welcome.
Holly Under Christianity
With the arrival of Christianity, holly, with its pagan origins, was quickly banished from the new Church’s rites and rituals. Even so, it managed it work its way gradually back into Christmas legends over the time as the old pagan ways were forgotten.
One legend, for example, is based on the Massacre of the Innocents in the Gospel of Matthew, when King Herod, having been told the King of the Jews had been born in Bethlehem, set out to eliminate a possible usurper by killing all male children in the vicinity. To protect baby Jesus, Joseph and Mary fled with him to Egypt. And this is where the holly legend steps in. It’s said the young family saw Roman soldiers coming towards them, hid behind a holly tree and then the tree miraculously bent down its branches to hide them. In thanks, Mary blessed the holly tree and ever since holly has remained green all year.
That’s not the best-known holly legend, though. The most common one concerns the crown of thorns. It claims that, before the arrival of Jesus, holly berries were always white. But then holly was used to make the crown of thorns put on Jesus’ head at the crucifixion and his blood colored the berries red, a color they keep to this day. That is why, this legend says, Christmas is celebrated by decorating the house with branches of holly.
Nice, but no dice… twice. Both legends lose all credibility when you realize there was no holly growing in Israel or indeed anywhere in the Middle East during the time of Jesus: it hails from the cooler, moister climate of central and western Europe.
There is an urban legend going around that claims holly got its name because it was a holy plant. Holly. Holy. That does seem to make sense… but tain’t true. The origin of the word holly is complicated, but essentially it derives from an Indo-European word meaning thorny plant, whereas holy is of germanic origin… and has pretty much always meant holy or healthy.
What is true is that the holly in Hollywood, the legendary abode of movie stars, does come from holly… more or less. You see, the hills above Los Angeles used be covered in California holly (Heteromeles arbutifolia), also known as Christmas berry, a tall shrub or small tree so called because of its berries that are bright red, giving the forest (wood) a reddish haze, hence holly wood. California holly isn’t actually a close relative of true holly (Ilex) though and certainly doesn’t share its spiny leaves.
The tradition of decorating the house at Christmas with holly sprigs remains very popular to this day, especially where holly can be harvested locally and inexpensively. There are farms that produce holly as a commercial crop throughout Europe and here and there in the United States.
In several European countries, bringing holly indoors for the Christmas is still believed to ensure a year of good luck. That is, if you don’t bring it in too early. In certain regions of France, for example, it is believed that misfortunate will strike if you bring holly indoors any earlier than December 24th.
May your Christmas halls be decked in holly… but not before the 24th!