For many of us the sight of holly leaves and berries is linked with Christmas, whether we celebrate this as a secular or a religious festival.
Christmas brings with it many traditions. It is probably the one time when a lot of us still practice at least a few old folklore customs today. Indeed in parts of Britain holly was once referred to simply as ‘Christmas’, and in pre-Victorian times ‘Christmas trees’ meant holly bushes.
Holly leaves and berries reflect the light and add colour to the dark days of Yule. This is one reason people bring it into houses, but it has another significance as well. Christian symbolism connected the spiny leaves with Jesus’ crown of thorns. The berries became associated with the drops of blood shed for humanity’s salvation. This is related in the Christmas carol, ‘The Holly and the Ivy’. Yet even this is an echo of a pre-Christian celebration. A boy in a suit of holly leaves and a girl in ivy, paraded around the village. The idea was to bring Nature through the darkest part of the year to re-emerge for another year’s fertility.
People brought holly into the house for other reasons too. Sometimes it was to protect the home from malevolent faeries. It was also to allow faeries to shelter in the home without friction between them and the human occupants. Whichever of the prickly-leaved or smooth-leaved holly was first brought into the house dictated whether the husband or wife respectively were to rule the household for the coming year.
In Celtic mythology the Holly King ruled over the half of the year from the summer to the winter solstice. At this time the Oak King defeated the Holly King to rule for the time until the summer solstice again. These two aspects of the Nature god were later incorporated into Mummers’ plays performed around Yuletide. The Holly King was depicted as a powerful giant of a man covered in holly leaves and branches, and wielding a holly bush as a club. The Green Knight of Arthurian legend may have been based on this same archetype. In this tale Gawain rose to the Green Knight’s formidable challenge during the Round Table’s Christmas celebrations.
However the folklore of the holly is not solely connected with Yuletide festivities. Like several other native trees people believed it had protective properties. There were taboos against cutting down a whole tree and they were often left uncut in hedges when these were trimmed. A more arcane reason for this was to obstruct witches who people believed ran along the tops of hedges. More practically farmers used their distinctive evergreen shapes to establish lines of sight during winter ploughing. The Duke of Argyll even had a prospective road rerouted to avoid cutting down a distinctive old holly in 1861.
In spite of the belief that felling of whole trees would bring bad luck, the taking of boughs for decoration, and the coppicing of trees to provide winter fodder, was allowed. Holly leaves proved to be particularly nutritious as winter feed for livestock. Some farmers even installed grinders to make the pricklier leaves more palatable. Coppicing also allowed the holly’s hard, white, close-grained wood to be used for inlaid marquetry and to make chess pieces and tool handles. Folklore suggested that the wood had an affinity for control, especially of horses. Most whips for ploughmen and horse-drawn coaches were made from coppiced holly, which accounted for hundreds of thousands of stems during the eighteenth century.
In Scotland the Gaelic name for holly is Chuillin. This appears across the country from Cruach-doire-cuilean on Mull, where the local McLean clan adopted holly as their clan badge, to Loch a’ Chuillin in Ross-shire in the north. The town of Cullen in Banffshire may also have derived its name from a local holly wood.
Holly trees were traditionally planted near houses to offer protection from lightning. European mythology associated holly with thunder gods such as Thor and Taranis. We now know that the spines on the distinctively-shaped holly leaves can act as miniature lightning conductors, thereby protecting the tree and other nearby objects. Science occasionally catches up with an explanation for what may previously have been dismissed as superstition!
“But the hue of his every feature
Stunned them: as could be seen,
Not only was this creature
Colossal, he was bright green
No spear to thrust, no shield against the shock of battle,
But in one hand a solitary branch of holly
That shows greenest when all the groves are leafless;”
~ from ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ ca 1370 – 1390, author unknown
“Heigh ho! sing heigh ho! unto the green holly:
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:
Then, heigh ho, the holly!
This life is most jolly.”
~ from ‘As You Like It’ by William Shakespeare
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- Milliken, W & Bridgewater, S (2004) Flora Celtica: plants and people in Scotland. Birlinn: Edinburgh.
- Paterson, J.M. (1996) Tree Wisdom. Thorsons: London.
- Vickery, R. (1995) A Dictionary of Plant Lore. Oxford University Press: Oxford.