Have you ever noticed that a lot of Christmas songs and carols mention holly? We have the Old English carol Deck the Halls…, the even older The Holly and the Ivy, and the modern songs Have A Holly, Jolly Christmas, and We Need a Little Christmas.
We see holly decorations everywhere, adorning carolers on holiday cards, and tucked into floral arrangements. I even wore it pinned into my hair on my wedding day a few days before Christmas. But, what is all the fuss about holly? How and why did it come to represent the season?
Believe it or not it is not something dreamed up by Disney illustrators or even Norman Rockwell; but the custom goes way back to the Romans, early Christians, and ancient Druids. Holly is an evergreen and is one of the few plants of the forest that remains vivid and green during the dormant months. The ancient pagans used holly for wreaths and garlands for decorations during the winter months. Its vivid green glossy leaves and red berries promised that things would spring to life later in the year.
The Druids and Holly
Holly played a major role for the Celts during their celebrations of the summer and winter solstice. The Druids or priests wore sprigs of the plant in their hair during the mistletoe rituals at solstice observances. They regarded holly as a symbol of fertility and eternal life.
To cut down a holly tree would bring bad luck but hanging it in the house would bring good luck and protection. It was also thought to protect homes against lightning strikes. Folklore says that the pointy leaves gave magical protection against evil spirits and it was also brought into their homes during the cold months to give shelter to the fairies of the forest.
The Romans and Holly
The Romans used holly during their celebration of Saturnalia as it was considered sacred to Saturn. Therefore, the early Christians used holly and evergreens as decorations for Christmas during the Roman times. The church fathers disapproved of this practice as it was considered “too pagan.”
The Christian Meaning of Holly
The Christians saw holly as a symbol for Christ. The red berries represent the drops of blood shed by Christ at his crucifixion and the prickly leaves remind us of the crown of thorns. In addition, the holly’s bitter bark is reminiscent of the bitter drink given to Christ when he was on the cross.
Other bits of folklore surrounding holly include the thought that the cross was made of holly and another claims that holly sprang up from Christ’s footsteps.
This Christmas season when you see sprigs of holly decking the halls and decorating the malls remember that it is more than just a colorful plant of festive Christmas colors but a long-established tradition that goes much farther back in time than you ever imagined.