Evergreen plants have been considered to be potent symbols of growth and re-birth particularly in Europe and Western Asia for thousands of years, they are especially welcome in the barren winter months.
Christmas Celebration Plant Lore
The Holly and the Ivy, Mistletoe, Christmas Trees, Yule Log
Evergreen plants were originally used in winter festivities as a means of ensuring that life and growth would return again in the spring, these days they provide a bright and welcome reminder of the warmer, greener and more fruitful days to come in the middle of the bleak midwinter.
The plants that we now bring into our homes to celebrate Christmas time are almost without exception, taken from pagan midwinter feasts of Northern Europe rather than from Christian origins and pre-date modern religious significance which has been overlaid onto the older traditions. One of the main differences is that we now bring such greenery into our homes much sooner than used to be done. It shouldn't be brought into the house until Christmas Eve as this was considered bad luck. Although these days Christmas is just far too exciting an event for most people who celebrate it to wait - particularly if you have children!
The holly and the ivy,
Now both are full well grown.
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown
Traditional Christmas Carol (1st verse)
Like other evergreens, holly has represented immortality ever since people began to look to plants for inspiration, it has been regarded as a plant of good omen since Early Times (It is now widely accepted by scholars that "Early Times" lies between the Late Eocene and "Donkeys Years Ago").
Holly has the advantageous property of looking as good in mid-winter as in mid-summer, other evergreens can look a bit poorly in the winter even though they perk up again when spring arrives - this amongst other things probably has helped its position in folk-lore.
All evergreens shed their leaves through the year, they just don't do it all in one go like deciduous plants. Holly tends to do this mainly in the spring, again helping it look good through the winter.
Holly was taken into homes when winter began to shelter the elves and fairies who could live with mortals at this time without causing injury (maybe they get trodden on at other times?). Holly was regarded as an excellent form of protection for all manner of things but specifically against evil spirits, poisons, thunder and lightning and the evil eye.
There are records of gifts of holly being given at the Roman festival of Saturnalia which lasted 5 days and ended with the winter solstice. Early Christians began to use holly in Nativity celebrations to disguise their Christianity, as it was sacred to pagan gods it gave the impression that they were taking part in Saturnalia.
Holly along with mistletoe was banned by the early Christian church due to its connections with pagans. This ban wasn't lifted until the 1600's, by then legends had been made up about holly and the crucifixion (clearly not by botanists) to fit something that was a jolly useful winter decoration. One such erstwhile tale claims that holly sprang up under Christ's feet as he walked to Calgary, the red berries representing his blood. Another is that the crown of thorns was made of holly and the berries which were originally white were stained red with blood when the spikes broke the Christ's skin. There are even claims that holly wood was used to make the cross.
More recently the "Holly King" a tradition carried on in mummers plays would vie with the "Oak King" for the hand of a fair maiden. At midsummer the oak king was defeated by the holly king, at midwinter, the oak king was victorious and so the seasonal tides flowed smoothly.
In rural areas of England, a bunch of holly was placed in the stable or cow shed on Christmas Eve to bring luck and favour the animals.
A European tradition says that whoever brought the first holly into the house, husband or wife, at Christmas would rule the house for the next year. Likewise prickly holly is said to be male while smooth leafed holly is said to be female, and which sort is brought in will affect whether the man or woman of the house will hold sway.
Bringing holly into the house before Christmas Eve will lead to family quarrels, though as the tree symbolizes peace and joy, disputes and differences of opinion can be settled under a holly tree.
Holly is also claimed to have many healing powers when used as a herb. It has been used for asthma, rheumatism, gout and dropsy. It was administered as holly tea in parts of central Europe, India and by Native Americans who would use it as a cure for measles.
Holly berries can be eaten by wildlife such as birds, but are poisonous to humans causing vomiting.
Things to avoid with holly which bring bad luck:
- burn it while still green
- smash the berries
- bring holly flowers into the house in the summer
A sprig of holly on the bedpost however is thought to bring happy dreams and holly decorations throughout the house bring a pleasant and jubilant atmosphere.
Heigh-ho! sing, heigh-ho! unto
the green holly
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly.
Then heigh-ho! the holly!
This life is most jolly.
Shakespeare - As You Like It