Celtic Origins of Holly

Holly is one of the symbols most commonly associated with Christmas and has been Holly used in this holiday's celebration for close to two thousand years. Although the mention of holly today conjures images of wreaths, it actually had religious significance long before it's adoption by Christianity.

There are around 400 natural types of holly (and many more artificially created hybrids), but the one people are most people are familiar with is Ilex aquifolium, or "English/Christmas Holly" as it's commonly known. It is a coniferous (evergreen/softwood) plant that can be found in many parts of the world. It's climatic preferences run along the same lines as those of Goldilocks, not too warm but not too cold. English holly grows best in moist soil in direct sunlight, but it can tolerate partial shade as well. Hot and dry conditions are the least optimal.

In addition to being associated with the Sun God (Saturn) in ancient Rome, holly was important in Pagan/Druidic religion and customs. Under many Pagan religions, it was customary to place holly leaves and branches around their dwellings during winter. This was intended as a kindly and hospitable gesture; they believed that the tiny fairies which inhabited the forests could come into their homes and use the holly as shelter against the cold. This Holly may actually have had some basis in fact, as holly growing in the wild is often used as shelter by small animals, primarily insects.

To the Druids, it was holly's evergreen nature that made it special. They believed that it remained green to help keep the earth beautiful when the deciduous trees (such as the oak, which they also held sacred) shed their leaves. It was also their custom to wear it in their hair when they ventured into the forests to watch the priests collecting mistletoe. The holly berries were thought to represent the sacred menstrual blood of their Goddess.

In addition to these uses, some ancient religions used holly for protection. They would decorate doors and windows with it in the hopes that it would capture (or at least dissuade) any evil spirits before they could enter the house. In effect, it was used as flypaper for demons.

As the British Isles began to convert to Christianity, the early Christians adopted the tradition of decorating their home with holly. At first they displayed it to avoid persecution, but as Christianity began to gain dominance they started to incorporate it into their own religion. The significance of the berries changed so that they now symbolized the blood of Christ and holly gradually solidified its position as a Christmas tradition. Holly

So as you're hanging that wreath (with a sprig of holly on it, of course) on your door, or placing it around the house this Christmas, think a little about the roots of this tradition. In addition to honouring your Celtic heritage and making your home look nice, you may also be performing the invaluable service of providing shelter to tree fairies and protecting your home from malevolent spirits.

SBB, December, 1999

MORE about Christmas:

The Celtic Origins of Holly

The Celtic Origins of Mistletoe

The Celtic Origins of Christmas: Alban Arthuan

Where to get it:

Amblecote Christmas Holly Farm, Duncan, BC (Canada)

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