Traditional wreath of holly

Traditional wreath of holly and the boughs of holly have been a symbol in many cultures, as well as a beloved tradition of the Christmas celebration. (Heather Burns photo)

’Tis the season to deck the halls, and how dismal would our holiday de­cor be without the traditional and lovely presence of the Christmas Hol­ly.

Thomas Oliphant first wrote the beloved Christmas carol “Deck the Halls” in 1862, singing the praises of the holiday festivity of decorating the home with boughs of holly, but the tradition and symbolism of the crimson-berried evergreen dates back much earlier than the mid-19th century.

Holly was considered a sa­cred plant by the Druids (the Druids were an educated class of the ancient Celts that existed as early as the 3rd century). The Druids appreciated the Holly plant, as it remained strong and green during the harsh winter weather, while other plants would wilt and die.

Because of its strength and tenacity, Holly was regarded by the Druids as a symbol of fertility and eternal life, and thought to possess magical powers.

To cut down or kill a Holly tree was considered bad luck, but hanging branches, or boughs, of Holly in the home would bring good luck and protection.

It was the belief that the sharp edged leaves of the Holly branch would fend off evil spirits and witches when hung on doors and windows.

Ancient Romans also held Holly plants with high regard in connection with Saturn, the God of agriculture and harvest.

Romans would deck the halls with boughs of Holly during the festival of Saturnalia.

So the question remains, how did these symbols of Celtic and Roman beliefs translate into present day Christmas celebrations?

Early Christian calendars refer to Christmas Eve as “Templa Exornatur,” which translates as “churches are decked.” This is one thought as to why Christians adopted the decking of the halls with Holly from the Druid and Roman traditions, which also took place in the early winter.

The symbolism was changed to reflect the Christian be­liefs, and so a tradition began.

It is a common Christian belief that the red berries of the Holly plant represent the blood of Christ that was shed on the cross during the crucifiction of Jesus.

The Holly’s pointed leaves represent the crown of thorns worn by Jesus before he died. This belief is exemplified in the early 19th century song by Andrew Perterson, “The Holly and the Ivy.” The well known lyric of this classic Christmas carol states “Of all the trees that are in the woods, the holly bears the crown.”

The Holly plant has certainly passed the test of time, as it is still an important modern day Christmas tradition.

Today, Holly (a.k.a. Ilex Aqui­folium) comes in over 200 varieties, and is grown mainly in North America, Europe and Asia.

Depending on the variety, Holly plants can grow anywhere between six and 130 feet tall.

Although certain varieties of Holly are deciduous, most are evergreen, keeping their glos­sy green leaves year round.

Holly plants prefer well drained soil, and can thrive in both full sun and shady locations.

When considering planting Holly in your yard, keep in mind that the Holly plant is dioecious, meaning the male and female reproductive struc­tures are found on separate male and female versions of the Holly plant.

Both male and female plants will bloom white flowers in the late spring, but only the female plant can produce the iconic bright red berries that the Christmas Holly is known for.

In order for berry production to occur, a male plant must grow near a female plant for the process of pollination to take place. This means you may want to consider adding both a male and female plant to your garden if you would like to enjoy a show of wintertime red ber­ries.

The beautiful red berries of the Holly are not only a prominent ingredient of holiday decor, they are also a source of food for many wild birds. However, consumption of Holly berries by humans and domestic pets, such as cats and dogs, can be toxic and result in nausea and severe stomach cramps if ingested.

This should not be cause to boycott Holly from your holiday decorations, but if it is a concern, simply remove the berries from any decorative holly in your home. The bright green or variegated white and green Holly leaves will still add depth and tradition to your holiday display.

As the Thomas Oliphant song reminds us, “Fast away the old year passes,” this most wonderful time of the year will be gone before we know it.

This year, enjoy the holiday season with the natural beauty and historic tradition of the Christmas Holly added to your holiday decorations. Once the decorating is complete, you can sit back and enjoy the holiday ambiance while enjoying a Christmas eggnog.

After all, as the song clearly states, “tis the season to be jolly!”

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