We’ve all seen the holly plant in the grocery store around Christmas time. Although few people know much about the holly symbolism and history.
The Holly symbolism begins with its pagan roots that stretch back to Celtic mythology. However, it wasn’t used for Christmas at that time.
In order to understand how this plant came to be synonymous with Christmas, we’ll explore the plant’s origins in pre-Christian times and its Christianisation during the Middle Ages.
The Holly Plant symbolises domestic happiness, a victory attained after a lot of difficulty. It is also the symbol of human being and the subconscious. The plant’s berries evoke the festive season and it falls under the dominion of the planet Saturn.
Capricorn Birth Plant
The Holly plant comes under the dominion of the planet Saturn which makes it the perfect plant not only for Christmas but also Capricorn.
The plant rules winter solstice in ancient Celtic culture which falls during Capricorn season. Likewise in Scandinavian culture it was linked to Yuletide. And finally during the festival of Saturnalia the Romans used the Holly and Ivy as its male counterpart.
Interesting Facts About Holly
Here are some interesting facts about the holly plant that you might not have known!
1. The Holly plant is synonymous with Christmas.
2. It is also a popular holiday decoration, used to adorn homes and churches for Christmas and New Year’s Day. In addition to serving as a source of decorations during pagan holidays such as Midsummer.
3. Holly plant can be found in many paintings from Dutch Golden Age paintings; especially those by Jan van Goyen and Pieter de Hooch.
4. According to Celtic mythology, holly protects its territory from evil spirits and witches. It’s also the reason why you can often find it on roofs and walls.
Holly Plant in Celtic Mythology
To the Celts, the holly plant symbolised strength, honor and loyalty. Druids would use holly wreaths during their winter solstice celebrations.
These wreaths were also worn on headdresses by nobility to symbolise wisdom and power. Some other examples include:
– Robin Hood’s bandana, which was sewn from holly leaves;
– Sir Gawain’s shield which was inscribed with a design that included holly leaves;
– The Holy Rood (the wood upon which Jesus Christ’s cross was made) is thought to have been made from Holly wood.
Because it is often associated with Christmastime celebrations, some people avoid bringing it into their homes at Christmas due to its pagan roots.
Holly Symbolism in Druid culture
Holly plant was an emblem of the ruler of winter, the Holly King whose opponent was the Oak King. They were personifications of the winter and summer.
The two Kings engage in endless battle that reflects the seasonal cycles of the year. This was not only symbolical of solar light and dark, but it was also about agriculture, the renewal and growth.
During warmer days (Midsummer) it is the Oak King that is at the height of his strength. While the Holly King regains power at the Autumn Equinox. His strength would be at its peak during Midwinter.
At this point the Oak King is then reborn and regains his power at the Spring Equinox. This is the never-ending cycle between them.
Holly Symbolism in other Pagan cultures
– In Scandinavia, celebrants put a Holly for the yule feast, believing they will bring luck to the house.
– German-speaking areas sold holly during winter in the form of potted plants and branches.
– In the Roman Bacchus cult, holly was the female counterpart to the male Ivy, and this is why doors of houses were decorated with wreaths from both plants during Saturnalia.
– Germanic tribes worshiped the spiky evergreen tree as an embodiment of the love goddess, Freia, the Great Mother. Her Holy Day was Friday.
– In a legend, every palm that greeted the Saviour Jesus during his entry into Jerusalem received thorns as a reminder of the ordeal that Christ was put through. Thus the spiky leaves of the holly became a Christian symbol of the thorny crown and its red berries became the blood of Christ.
Victorian Times Holly Symbolism
During Victorian times, they used the Holly plant to predict future, in order to diminish their fears. They would use a saucer filled with water.
They would then place tiny pieces of candles on the Holly leaves. Then they would light the candles and it would determine the success or failure of one’s affairs. This was calculated based on the leaves, whether they were floating or sinking.
Young maidens back then would also make use of the holly plant too. If they wished to know who they were going to marry. They would place nine leaves of they holly under their pillow and it would make them dream of their future husband.
It was also during Victorian England that the Holly symbolism began to associate itself to the Christmas.
Both Queen Victoria and Prince Albert loved all things antique. They saw similarities between the holly plant and the evergreen trees, and set out to re-create Christmas traditions from earlier times.
Holly Symbolism and Christmas
Holly played an essential part in Victorian Christmas, wound round has lamps and picture frames, and bunches of the berries, the stem twined with ivy, made for a festive table decoration.
Slender hoops bent into the form of a crown and covered with winter greenery would arch over Christmas feast. It was essential that all greenery, especially the holly should be taken down before Twelfth Night.
An integral part of Christmas tradition, Holly has been known to be used in both Celtic and other European pre-Christian traditions.
Whether you’re celebrating Christmas or simply displaying your holiday spirit, holly is a beautiful addition to any home or office. It has now become synonymous with Christmastime.
The chimney was considered the entry and exit for ghosts or spirits and ancestors. In order to keep this door clean, and drive out the bad spirits that were kept in the soot in the dark, a magic broom was needed.
Up to the present time, the chimney is decorated with boughs of holly so that the Christmas spirit or old St Nicholas can come in at the midnight hour and bless the inhabitants. It is considered bad luck to bring holly into the house before Christmas eve.
Magical Properties of Holly
– In Druid culture they tended to use plants for medicinal purposes rather than as decoration.
– It was considered a sacred plant, imbued with magical properties and thought to protect against evil spirits.
– It was planted near homes and at sacred sites where rituals were conducted to repel evil spirits. Druids believed that holly should not be cut down but allowed to grow on its own; any cutting would deprive it of its magic.
– In ancient Druid folklore, holly is depicted as a protector against dark magic used by witches and vampires alike.
– It is also said that carrying a sprig of holly into your home will keep demons from entering. With all these attributes, it’s no wonder why Christians adopted holly for their holiday!
– The Holly both protects against and attract dangerous powers: there were signs that the witches needed the red berries of the holly to brew thunderstorms.
– It was used in magic as protection from nightmares, incubi and other demons, and lightning.
– Pythagoras writes that the power of their blossoms changes water into ice. He also says that when a holly branch stick is flung at an animal without enough force to reach it and is about to land a little short of the animal, the stick will makes itself come nearer by a cubit through its own magic, such a great power is in this tree.
FAQ Holly Symbolism
If you liked our blog on the Holly Symbolism then make sure to check out our other blog on Christmas Plants and Flowers, the Poinsettia.
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Monaghan, P. (2008). The encyclopedia of Celtic mythology and folklore. Facts On.
Peterson, N. (1989). Culpeper Guides: Herbs And Health. Webb & Bower.
Thiselton Dyer, T. F. (1994). Folklore of Plants. Llanerch Press.
Watts, D., & Watts, D. C. (2007). Dictionary of Plant Lore. Academic Press.