Holly is entwined in holiday traditions

Holly berries

The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown.

This traditional British Christmas carol highlights the prominence of holly in our holiday celebrations.   But where did that tradition begin?

Because holly retains its green leaves all year long, many ancient cultures believed it had magical powers.  The ancient Druids were the first to give it supernatural significance, bringing in boughs to attract woodland spirits.  

Other cultures followed suit.  Holly was hung in homes to ward off evil spirits, worn by warriors for courage, eaten to purge impurities, drunk as tea for strength, and put under pillows to inspire prophetic dreams.

Romans hung holly in their temples and homes during Saturnalia, the midwinter festival honoring Saturn, god of agriculture.  Holly’s evergreen boughs celebrated the return of longer days and the hope for productive farms in the coming year.

The Roman naturalist Pliny added to holly’s lore.  He believed that a wild animal could be subdued by throwing a stick of holly at it and that holly trees planted near a home would protect its owners from both bad weather and witchcraft. 

Early churches adopted pagan rituals as their own.  Christmas Eve was designated as the time to decorate churches and it was forbidden to bring any greens into a home before then.   

Those bans on early decorating inspired the belief that bringing in holly too soon would cause misfortune.  I wonder what the ancients would think of modern day stores’ policies of putting up Christmas merchandise the day after Halloween?

Holly also spoke of love and relationships. Henry VIII wrote a love song, “Green groweth the holly” which extolled being ever true.  And one tradition dictated that the first one – husband or wife – to bring holly into the home at Christmas would rule the roost in the coming year. 

Grab that holly, girls!

Sex and the single holly gets complicated.  Most hollies are dioecious, having separate male and female trees.  You need both for the female to get berries. 

Oh, and those berries aren’t really berries.  They are drupes, a fleshy fruit with pit that contains a seed. There, you’ve had your botany word of the day.   

Ilex is the scientific name for the over 500 species of holly trees and shrubs. Most are evergreen, but a few are deciduous, losing their leaves in fall.  And their berries can be red, white, yellow or black. 

Holly’s berries feed a multitude of birds from mockingbirds and thrushes to robins and bluebirds.  They’re an important food source for other wildlife as well. 

But don’t try snacking on holly berries yourself.  They can make you ill or worse.  In medieval times physicians touted holly berries as a cure for colic.  The results were sometimes fatal.  Whether you display it for love, protection, good fortune or beauty, let holly grace your holiday home to honor traditions that have been handed down through the ages.  

By Annette Cormany, Principal Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Washington County, University of Maryland Extension. This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media. Read more by Annette.

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