Holly is a traditional Christmas plant

Front door wreaths, table centerpieces, Christmas cards, jewelry and clothing designs all feature holly at this time of year. Holly is a symbol of the season and it is such a beautiful plant, it is no wonder we love it so. However, there's an interesting backstory to how this shrub or small tree found its way into our winter celebrations. The genus Ilex is found in tropical and temperate regions throughout the world and there are about 450 members of the genus, however there are only about 18 plants in the genus that are actually referred to as holly. It is the English holly, Ilex aquifolium and American Holly, Ilex opaca that are often associated with the Christmas season.

Ancient Romans considered holly sacred

The ancient Roman celebration of Saturnalia was observed in mid December, leading up to the solstice. It was a time of merry-making, gift giving and slaves sat down with their masters at the banquet tables and were treated as equals. Many candles lit the festivities and children were gifted with toys. They decorated their homes with evergreen branches because evergreens were believed to help carry the sun through the dark winter period. Holly was especially favored because their god Saturn considered it sacred.

Ancient European holly lore and beliefs

The Norse, Celts and Druids also considered holly sacred and many customs and beliefs surrounded it. They believed that cutting down a holly tree would bring bad luck, however, trimming the branches was just fine. They cut holly branches and brought them inside to keep witches away, however holly leaves brought indoors would encourage fairies to enter and bring good luck. They also hung a holly branch from the ceiling to prevent lightning strikes. Actually, the distinctive veins and spines in holly leaves do in fact, act as miniature lightning rods and protect the tree and other things nearby, so modern science and superstition sometimes agree. The Norse legend that migrated down to the Celts believed that the holly and the oak fought each year with the holly winning the dark portion and the oak winning the light. The holly was the king of winter and long nights, while the oak was king of the summer and long days. They also made their front door step out of a piece of holly wood to repel evil spirits. Holly wood was supposed to have magical properties that affected animals, especially horses. They thought that holly wood tamed and gentled them. Thousands of coach whips were even made from holly wood long into the 18th Century.

Early Christianity and the holly plant

As Christianity spread across Europe, holly and other pagan symbols were incorporated into the new customs and beliefs. Farmers had their cattle pens decorated with holly on Christmas Day since they believed the cows would produce more milk in the coming year by seeing the branches. They also burned the cut holly branches on the 12th Night to prevent bad luck. However holly wreaths hanging in churches were considered immune and the wreaths were divided between the parishioners and sprigs of holly taken to each home to ensure good luck. New babies were bathed in water that holly leaves had been steeped to ensure a long and healthy life. The new stories surrounding holly said that the prickly leaves represented the crown of thorns and the red berries drops of blood on Christ's forehead. Before the custom of Christmas trees reached England, kissing balls woven of ivy, boxwood and holly were placed in entryways. The other formerly pagan plant of mistletoe was hung from the bottom of the ball inviting people to kiss under it. In fact, the first Christmas trees in pre-Victorian England were holly bushes. However, there was still some lingering lore held over from the pagan era. It was believed that if you made a steaming tea from holly and sage and yawned over it, if you had worms or internal parasites, they would fall out of your mouth. Young maids slept with holly leaves under their pillow to dream of their future husband and young men carried holly leaves and berries in their pockets to attract young women. They also made holly wood cups for children to drink from. They thought that this would prevent whooping cough.

holly leaves and berries

Holly grows well in most temperate climates

No matter where the customs originated, we can all agree that holly is a lovely plant that works well in seasonal decorations. It is an easy shrub to grow and makes a great statement in the garden. Hollies like well-drained acidic soil and for the best berry production about eight hours of sun each day and a male plant to fertilize around ten female plants. That's right, hollies are dioecious, with male and female flowers on different plants. Most nurseries and garden centers have the shrubs labeled so that you can choose the number of each that you need. However, the best way to tell is that the female plants are the only ones with berries. Hollies are hardy throughout just about all of North America, however there are varieties that do better than others in different regions, Check with your nursery or garden center to help you choose the best one for your garden.