Holly and Christmas are like chocolate eggs and Easter. You can’t imagine one without the other. And there’s something so delightfully festive about holly garlands or wreaths in December.
But how did this glossy but prickly plant become such a central part of Christmas decorations?
So what are the links between holly and Christmas?
As with most Christmas symbols, the link between holly and Christmas actually predates Christianity. Holly was associated with Saturn in ancient Rome. Saturn gave his name to the festival of Saturnalia. Originally it was held on 17 December in the Julian calendar, but it expanded to last until 23 December.
We’ll just take a short detour because Saturnalia is just so fascinating. In short, it was a time of misrule and almost carnivalesque jovial behaviour.
It inverted social norms, meaning people could gamble freely, and masters often swapped places with their slaves. A “King of Saturnalia” might be crowned, who took charge of proceedings.
This in turn perhaps explains the making of King Cake at Twelfth Night, or the election of kings during Mardi Gras.
But back to holly.
Holly was also important to pagan customs. In a somewhat sweet legend, people placed holly branches around their homes in the winter. The holly became a form of shelter for the fairies that lived in the forest.
But essentially it’s the evergreen nature of holly that makes it special – much like mistletoe. Some ancient people hung holly at their doors and windows to turn away evil spirits. Given its prickly nature, that’s not hard to believe. Some people even planted holly trees near their house, believing it protected the property from lightning strikes.
It also became a symbol of fertility. Being green all year round represented blazing eternal life. The berries also provide a food source in winter for birds (though they’re toxic to humans).
The practice of decorating with holly continued even as Britain converted to Christianity. Where the berries once signified the menstrual blood of the Goddess, now it represented the blood of Christ. Many also believed that the prickly leaves represent the crown of thorns.
In days gone by, people believed that holly was a male plant, while ivy was a female plant. The old carol, ‘The Holly and the Ivy’, actually relates to fertility myths. A custom from the Midlands claimed that whichever plant was brought into the house first dictated who would rule the household that year – the man or the woman. Ironically, holly plants with berries are actually female!
Either way, it was considered unlucky to bring holly or ivy into a house before Christmas Eve.
After Christmas, boys whipped each other with holly boughs at Hogmanay to bring good luck. Elsewhere in the country, Christmas holly had to be burned by Twelfth Night to preserve the good luck of the new year. Other people burned it on Candlemas Eve (February 1st) since Candlemas represented Brigid and the returning light of the spring.
The Holly King Battles the Oak King
Within Celtic traditions, legends tell the tales of two supreme beings, fighting for supremacy. They battle each other at every Solstice. At the summer solstice, the Holly King defeats the Oak King. He goes on to rule the latter half of the year, as the northern hemisphere slides into winter.
But at the winter solstice, otherwise known as Yule, the Oak King defeats the Holly King. His rule coincides with the return of spring and summer. However, there is another interpretation that the Kings do battle at the equinoxes. That makes the Oak King strongest at Midsummer, and the Holly King dominant during Yule.
So the reign of the King explains the link between holly and Christmas. The Holly King rules at that time of year!
The depictions of the Holly King seem awfully familiar. He often dresses in red, and wears holly in his hair. Some images show him riding in a chariot pulled by eight stags. Who else does that sound like?!
Do you decorate with actual holly, or its plastic cousin? Let me know in the comments!
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