Holly is an ancient plant and there is an abundance of folklore about Christmas Holly. The glossy, spiny, green leaves and bright, scarlet berries of the Ilex Aquifolium look joyful at this time of year and epitomize the Christmas colours we know and love. In olden days people would hang it outside their homes for good luck but it was in Victorian times when the holly really began to be utilised as decoration within people’s houses. At that time families really did ‘deck the halls with boughs of holly’. Even now, just a sprig of holly on the table or mantlepiece can really add a festive, finishing touch in the home.
Holly gives Protection
It is not surprising, with its prickly leaves, that holly symbolized ‘protection’. Besides Christmas decoration for the home, people have often planted it outside their doors or gateways to offer protection from harm. During November the holly really comes into its own in the woodland. While all the deciduous trees are shedding their leaves, the holly offers protection for the rabbits, foxes, deer and small birds. A sprig of holly, if it offers protection, will also bring good fortune. But beware, that fortune can quickly turn to bad if you do not follow Christmas tradition. Superstition says that the decorations must be taken down by twelfth night (6th January). Otherwise you will have bad luck or even visits from witches. For some it is very important to dispose of the holly in the correct way. A ceremonial burning or burying in the garden is what is required. Personally, I rather like this idea. It is a time to ‘thank’ the holly for the protection, reflect on what has gone in the year before and make wishes on what is to come.
Folklore about Foresight
Holly is known for just that foresight. Holly grows slowly. Often you see it in hedgerows but, where it has been left to grow into a tree, it naturally becomes tall and conical. If you observe a big, old holly bush and look up to the higher branches you will find that the prickles disappear from about head height up. This is why the holly is seen as being wise and having foresight. It recognizes the need for protection while it is small but once the plant is established it no longer needs this defense and the leaves grow smooth.
Holly Leaves give foresight through Dreams
Dreams of holly use both the smooth and the spiny leaves. If you dream of holly it is said that there is a quarrel coming your way. Those prickles are out to warn you of a difficult situation. In the past girls needed to collect nine of the smooth leaves and place them under their pillow to dream of their future husband. Smooth leaves are technically called ‘blind’. Let’s hope that the smooth leaves represent an absence of quarrels and that unlike those spiny leaves that their love was ‘blind’ enough to overlook minor differences of opinion and avoid too many quarrels!
Christian Symbolism of Holly
For Christians the sharp, spiky leaves are reminders of Christ’s crown of thorns on the cross. The red berries represent his blood where it pierced his skin. It is a poignant reminder of death and his purpose on the Earth at a time when Christians are celebrating Christ’s birth.
Sayings about Holly Berries
There is a theory that when the holly is laden with berries it is because nature has the foresight to know that it is going to be a cold winter. The birds seem to know not to eat the berries too early. Instead they save them for the lean, winter months to come. We always make sure we leave plenty of berries on the boughs when we are collecting for our wreath making at the nursery. After all, we are enjoying holly as decoration while the birds need it to survive! So, if you fancy some sprigs of holly from the garden or hedgerow but cannot find berries, do not despair they have been invaluable for our precious wildlife. We often brighten the stems with red ribbon, small red baubles and wire in some fir cones. After all sharing and caring is the true spirit of Christmas!
Ruth Goudy – The Flower Writer
You can also visit my YouTube channel ‘Ruth Goudy – The Flower Writer’ to see a video of me beside my favourite holly bush talking about symbolism and folklore.
Or if you would like to read about another Christmas plant then there is a blog here on my page about Mistletoe.