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Holly - The Christmas Green

During the holidays, many folks love to drape their doorways and deck their halls with cheerful holly wreaths and garlands. These traditionalists may even sing wistfully of "The Holly and the Ivy" when they go out caroling.

As with most holiday symbols, this celebratory plant's original meaning has been buried under a myriad of cultural layers. The pagan Druids are believed to have been the first to take holly to heart. They viewed holly with its cheerful propensity to remain green in winter as a sacred plant, designed to keep the earth beautiful even as north winds howled and snow blanketed the landscape. They wore sprigs of holly in their hair when they went into the forest to watch their priests cut the sacred mistletoe. 

The Romans, meanwhile, bequeathed the creation of holly to their god Saturn and used it in great abundance during their raucous Saturnalia festival. Romans gave one another holly wreaths and carried them about decorating images of Saturn with it. 

Centuries later, in December, while other Romans continued their pagan worship, Christians celebrated the birth of Jesus. To avoid persecution, they decked their homes with Saturnalia holly. As Christian numbers increased and their customs prevailed, holly lost its pagan association and became a symbol of Christmas.

The plant has come to stand for peace and joy, people often settle arguments under a holly tree. Holly is believed to frighten off witches and protect the home from thunder and lightning. In West England it is said sprigs of holly around a young girl's bed on Christmas Eve are suppose to keep away mischievous little goblins. In Germany, a piece that has been used in church decorations is regarded as a charm against lightning. In England, British farmers put sprigs of holly on their beehives. On the first Christmas, they believed, the bees hummed in honor of the Christ Child. The English also mention the "he holly and the she holly" as being the determining factor in who will rule the household in the following year, the "she holly" having smooth leaves and the "he holly" having prickly ones. Other beliefs included putting a sprig of holly on the bedpost to bring sweet dreams and making a tonic from holly to cure a cough. All of these references give light to "decking the halls with boughs of holly."

the holly

The Holly and the Ivy

The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown.

The rising of the sun
And the running of the deer,
The playing of the merry organ,
Sweet singing in the choir.

The holly bears a blossom
As white as the lily flower,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To be our sweet savior.

The holly bears a berry
As red as any blood,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To do poor sinners good.

The holly bears a prickle
As sharp as any thorn
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
On Christmas day in the morn.

The holly bears a bark
As bitter as any gall,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
For to redeem us all.

The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood
The holly bears the crown.

- Old English Christmas Carol -

 

 

Other Legends

Holly is one of the trees said to be the tree of Christ's cross. Legend tells us that the trees of the forests refused the defilement of the cross, splintering into tiny fragments at the touch of the ax. Only the holly behaved like an ordinary tree, allowing itself to be cut and formed into a cross. It is as a Passion symbol that holly is found in pictures of various saints. It's presence indicates that the saint is either reflecting upon Christ's Passion or foretelling it.

In Germany, holly is called Christdorn in memory of Christ's crown of thorns. According to legend, the holly's branches were woven into a painful crown and placed on Christ's head while the soldiers mocked him saying, "Hail, King of the Jews." The holly's berries used to be white but Christ's blood left them with a permanent crimson stain.

Another legend about this Christmas plant says that a little orphan boy was living with the shepherds when the angels came to announce the birth of the newborn king. Having no gift for the baby, the child wove a crown of holly branches for its head. But when he lay it before Christ, he became ashamed of it's poverty and began to cry. Miraculously, Jesus touched the crown and it began to sparkle while the orphan's tears turned into beautiful scarlet berries.

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