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Holly Lore


This prickly-leafed plant was probably the most popular of all evergreen decorations. It had no pagan properties associated with it, as did mistletoe, and it was therefore hung in the churches while mistletoe was not. In fact, holly became symbolically connected to Christianity. The red berries called to mind the drops of blood that the Savior shed, and the pointed leaves the crown of thorns. The leaves like flames were remindful of the scorching love for God in the heart of Mary. Holly was also a symbol of the burning bush in which God appeared to Moses.

In medieval times the leaves and berries afforded protection against witchcraft and the evil eye. Single women tied sprigs of it to their beds to keep the Devil from making witches of them. A holly tree near the house was thought a sufficient safeguard against thunder and lightning as were the bunches of it which were taken home from the church after the Christmas season. In England holly was the good luck charm of men, and ivy of women.

The popularity of mistletoe is highest in America and England (in Australia it is considered a dangerous forest weed). The tradition of kissing beneath it - possibly a symbol of peace or sacrifice - is echoed only in Austria. There the mistletoe-wreathed Sylvester figure leaps out at maidens and kisses them, but he is more a satyr figure than an expression of Christmas gaiety.

Holly, on the other hand, is well rooted in Christian lore as well as being one of the best-loved Christmas plants because of its bright red berries and sturdy, shiny leaves. With its thorns and red fruit, holly is associated with the Passion; the Scandinavian name for it is literally “Christ-thorn”. It has long been held to be in opposition to the ivy - perhaps because the ivy’s traditional place was Bacchanalian, the tavern, whereas holly’s associations were resilient and male whereas ivy’s were clinging and female.

Like mistletoe, holly was long held to be a medicament for ailments as diverse as measles and rheumatism. Argentineans still drink mate tea, made from holly leaves, a potion shared by early North American Indians. Holly also has many associations with good fortune. In Louisiana its berries were kept for luck and it was believed to protect both animals and humans from lightning, fire and the evil eye.

According to English belief, holly even held prophetic properties. To induce a dream of his or her future mate, a young person would pick nine holly leaves in silence on a Friday midnight, then tie them with nine knots into a three-cornered handkerchief and place it under the pillow. If the curious one remained silent from the time of picking the leaves until the next morning, his or her future mate was supposed to appear in a dream.


In Scotland a girl could hold a holly leaf to her heart and recite the “Legend of the Holly”:

Legend of the Holly

The holly berry that burns so red (Raise high the holly!) Once was whiter than wheaten bread (As love is better than folly.)

Whiter than shells along the shore It blooms on its tree by a stable door.

Villagers come there, half-afraid, Gifts in their hands for Child and Maid. And one has nothing of note, so he Fetches a branch of the holly tree

Alas, alas, the little Newborn has pricked His finger upon a thorn, Has left His blood on the spiny leaves. Heavy of heart the holly grieves

Sees in a terrible vision how A crown of holly shall bind His brow When Child is man.


For sorrow and shame The berries have blushed as red as flame. Says Mary the Mother,“Take no blame.

“But be of good cheer as ever you can Both foul and fair are the works of man,

“Yet unto man has My Son been lent. And you, dear tree, are the innocent“Who weeps for pity what man might do So all your thorns are forgiven you.”

Now red, rejoicing, the berries shine On jubilant doors as a Christmas sign That desolation to joy makes way. (Hang high the holly!)

Holly is the symbol of Christ’s Birthday. (When love shall vanquish folly.)