Year after year, century after century, holly sprigs and wreaths, with their deep green leaves and bright red berries, deck the halls in homes, schools and stores as festive decorations for the Christmas season. Like most holiday traditions, decorating with holly has meaning and a story and, like many holiday traditions, the meaning and the story have changed over the years, but the tradition continues.
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Holly is the genus name for more than 600 species of evergreen trees. Holly trees have sharply tipped shiny leaves that can range in color from a deep rich solid green color to a variegated white and pale green. They bloom in May and early June with white fragrant flowers that attract bees for pollination. The small, berry-like fruit is bright red and popular with several species of birds.
According to the Flower Essence Society, the holly tree was a holy tree to the Druids. During the winter solstice, when the sacred oak tree had lost its leaves, the Druid priests would wear sprigs of holly in their hair as a testimony that the world would remain beautiful in spite of the desolation of the winter weather.
In ancient Rome, the plant was sacred to the Roman god Saturn. To honor their god during the Saturnalia festivals, the Romans decorated images of Saturn with holly wreaths, exchanged them as gifts and carried them in processions. For several centuries after Christ, when the growing Christian church was persecuted, Christians celebrated the birth of Jesus in December when their Roman neighbors were celebrating Saturnalia. Christians adopted the tradition of decorating with holly at this time of year to avoid being noticed and persecuted.
As the Christian population grew, the habit of decoration with holly at Christmas became a tradition. Bishop Martin of Germany did forbid all use of Christmas evergreens in AD 575, stating it was a dangerous heathen custom. The tradition returned within a couple of centuries.
A traditional old Christmas carol named “The Holly and the Ivy” describes the characteristics of the holly in terms of their meaning to Christianity. The lily-white flower of the holly tree represents the purity of Jesus Christ. The bright red berries represent His blood. The prickly edge of the leaves symbolize the crown Christ wore at His crucifixion. The bitterness of the bark is a reference to the gall, or vinegar-like wine, that Christ was given while He hung on the cross.
Several superstitions are associated with the holly plant. Holly has stood for joy and peace; therefore, people have settled agreements beneath the holly tree. Holly sprigs have been believed to have the power to ward off witches, goblins, bad dreams and thunder and lightning. Lastly, if a home is decorated with a prickly type of holly, the husband will rule the home for the year. If the home is decorated with a smooth type of holly, the wife will rule.