The story behind holly at Christmas

One of the things which we associate with the Christmas season is holly. The brilliant red berries, and the firm leaves with their prickles, are common in our homes, stores, and advertisements.
Holly is almost as much a symbol of Christmas as Santa Claus himself.
The holly which most people of my age think of as the “real” holly is the English, or European holly. There are quite a few different species in different parts of Europe. Some are large trees, as high as 50 or 60 feet, but most are somewhat shrubby.
In some, the leaves and berries stay on all winter so they are used extensively as ornamental hedges.
In America, there are quite a few native hollies, and some of these grow well up into the southern parts of Canada. The most common of these is the Winterberry (Ilex verticellata).
The leaves do not have the hard thorns found on some European species, and they turn black at the onset of winter, and fall quickly. The scarlet berries grow all along the stem, in groups of two, three, and four.
This common holly is very pretty, and is used more and more for decoration. The only place which I am sure it can be found in Northern Ontario is in Quetico Park but it may be in other places as well.
These nice red berries are eaten by a lot of different kinds of birds, and by mice and squirrels, but in man, they trigger a violent reaction, including vomiting and diarrhea.
The Indians used them as a purgative for centuries.
The use of holly for Christmas decorations is lost in the mists of antiquity. In ancient Germany, the holly–with its evergreen leaves–was hung up in the house so the spirits which lived in the woods would have a warm and familiar refuge during the depths of the cold winter.
In early Rome, holly was associated, not with Christianity, but with Saturnalia, a time which involves a lot of feasting, carousing, and general whooping-it-up.
The English have many superstitions about holly. In some places, to put any holly up before Christmas Eve is quite unlucky. In Derbyshire, whether the holly is rough or smooth determines who will be the boss of the house for the next year–the husband or wife.
As with so many of our customs, the use of holly for Christmas has evolved, via many pagan celebrations, to become an integral part of our Christian one.
“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 holly bears the berry
As red as any blood,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To do poor sinners good.”

Posted in Uncategorized