English Holly (Ilex aquifolium)
The word holly comes from the Old English ‘holegn‘ which became the Middle English ‘holin‘, which Tolkien fans will recognise – Hollin was the name among men for the land of Elves that thrived to the west of the Mines of Moria, known as Eregion, and it was famous for its holly trees.
In Welsh holly is called celyn. In Terry Pratchett’s ‘Soul Music’, Imp Y Celyn is the lead singer of The Band With Rocks In
Folk names for holly hulver bush, holm, hulm, holme chase, holy tree and Christ’s thorn.
Holly is one of the most striking objects in the winter woodland with its glossy leaves and clusters of brilliant scarlet berries. It is very much connected with Christmas in many Western cultures. From very early days, it was gathered in great quantities for Yuletide decorations, both of the church and the home. The old Christmas Carols are full of references to holly.
Christmas decorations are said to derive from a Roman custom that involved sending gifts to their friends during the festival of Saturnalia which occurred in mid-December. Strenae, twigs of holly or laurel with sweets fastened to them, were a popular gift. Boughs of holly and other evergreens were also used as decorations. Evergreens are symbolic, of course, of enduring and renewed life as well as a way to encourage the return of vegetation at the end of Winter.
The Christians were quick to adopt holly for their own celebrations, with the holly representing the crown of thorns that Jesus wore, the berries symbolising drops of blood. A medieval legend asserts that the holly sprang up from the places where Christ walked, hence the name Christ’s Thorn.
Old church calendars have Christmas Eve marked ‘templa exornantur‘ (churches are decked), and the custom is as deeply rooted in modern times, whether you celebrate Christmas, Yule, the Unconquered Sun, or the return of the light, as it was in either pagan or early Christian days.
Childhood memories of ‘trimming up’.
As a small child, I can remember going to bed on Christmas Eve to an ordinary home. Generally, we were in bed early – 6pm on a school night, 7pm any other night. On Christmas Eve, my parents used to keep us up until gone 7pm just to try to get us all to sleep through the night – I am one of six children, the second oldest. I’d be blamed for everything, including the indecently early hour of waking on Christmas morning. We’d make our way downstairs, bags of gifts in hand, and we’d be amazed! The stairwell was lit by twinkling fairy lights. The front room was sparkly with shimmering tinsel, metallic versions of fancy paper-chains, and the lights, baubles, lametta and tinsel on the tree.
As a child this was magic! It was, in many ways, the best part of the day. We were always told that the the fairies that lived in the central heating did the work of decorating, but as we grew up, we took our places to help the ‘rents decorate, as well as taking part in the toast at 10pm to members of the family past and present. Even when we were all young adults, the house was never decorated before Christmas Eve, and even when we all had moved away to our own homes we still returned on Christmas Eve to decorate for the ‘rents. I still believe the rest of the family do so now.
It is said to be unlucky to cut a branch from a holly tree; it should be pulled off instead.
Old stories advise people to take holly into their homes to act as a shelter for elves and fairies who could join mortals at this time without causing them harm. However, it must be entirely removed before Imbolc Eve (31st January) as just one leaf left within the house would result in bad luck.
In Somerset, it was considered unlucky for holly to be brought into the house before Christmas Eve, and then only brought in by a man.
In Herefordshire and Worcestershire, a small piece of holly which had adorned a church at Christmas time was regarded as very lucky to hang up in your home, even though the domestic decorations had to be burned as usual.
Pliny tells us that if holly is planted near a house or a farm it would repel poison, deflect lighting and protect from witchcraft.
Pythagoras noted that the flowers would cause water to freeze and if the wood, if thrown at any animal, would cause the animal to return and lie down by the wood, even if the wood did not touch the animal.
A good crop of berries on holly is still said to be a sign that a hard winter is on the way.
Holly wood is heavy, hard and white-ish and it was used for the white chess pieces, ebony being used for the black.
In the 1800s, weaving looms had holly wood spinning rods; holly was less likely to snag the threads being woven as it is a very dense wood and can be sanded very smooth.
Peter Carl Faberge used holly cases for his famous Easter Eggs, as well as small objects such as hand seals.
Holly is also used for veneering.
- “English Folklore” J Simpson and S Roud