Holly has a very long pre-Christian association with fertility, its sharp spines and red berries carried throughout winter were a powerful male symbol. Also, as an ancient magic charm against witches and house goblins, branches would be brought into the house and farm buildings during winter to protect inhabitants and livestock. These two facets were easily accommodated by the new Christian beliefs, with the spines now representing the crown of thorns and the red berries the blood of Christ. Bringing sprigs into the house became traditional at Christmas, but elements of the old superstitions still linger. I realise now, many years later, that these superstitions even infused my own childhood. When I was growing up it was always my dad s job to collect some branches from the best holly trees on the farm on Christmas Eve, and we would be careful to put up a sprig in every room of the house. Twelve days later the holly was removed but it was never burnt on the fire, probably because it would have released the bad spirits back into the house, according to the beliefs at the time. Instead, it was always taken outside and discarded. Two interesting ironies sit alongside these views. Firstly, holly is what s known botanically as a dioecious plant, meaning that individual trees and bushes are either entirely male or entirely female. Both sexes are needed in close proximity if a good crop of berries are to be set.
And for this most potent of male of symbols, after all the holly wears the crown, it s the female plant that bears the berries. The irony is taken even further with some of the most popular named varieties we grow in our gardens: Golden King is female and Golden Queen is male. Secondly, although we cut holly and bring it into our houses, there is a very deeply entrenched superstition about cutting down holly trees. This act invariably elicits visitations from witches and evil spirits, and bad things always happen to those that wielded the axe or chainsaw. This view is so strong that even today, some foresters and tree surgeons would think twice about cutting down a holly tree. Often, years or decades might pass before the mishap, illness or disaster strikes the unfortunate culprit, but it s always because they cut down the holly tree. For the same reason, farmers often leave hollies uncut in hedgerows, allowing them to grow up into mature trees. In some areas, there is a belief that such trees help prevent witches moving around, as they re known to run along the tops of hedges. Hollies are, of course, often laden with berries throughout the winter months and are an essential source of food for many berry-eating birds. Song thrushes, blackbirds, fieldfares and redwings will feast on them, but usually only later in the winter when frost has made them softer and more palatable, and when levels of ilicin, a bitter alkaloid, have reduced.
Mistle thrushes are particularly fond of holly berries and pairs will often set up a territory around a bush and defend it aggressively, protecting their own larder for later in the winter. The tough leaves of holly mean they re not particularly palatable to invertebrates, but 28 species are known to use holly as a food plant, including of course one of our loveliest butterflies, the holly blue. If you enjoyed this, then find out more about the folklore, superstition and facts surrounding the other festive plants
and. You can follow BBC Earth on and and like us on. Why do we decorate our houses at Christmas time? To celebrate Jesus\’ birthday on Christmas Day many people decorate their homes. Y copyright of projectbritain. com What are the traditional Christmas Decoration Colours? Red and green are the traditional colours of Christmas. Green represents the continuance of life through the winter and the Christian belief in eternal life through Jesus. Y copyright of projectbritain. com Red symbolizes the blood that Jesus shed at His Crucifixion. When are Christmas decorations put up? Christmas decorations used to be put up on Christmas Eve and not before. Indeed, many people believed that it was extremely unlucky to bring evergreens, the traditional item to decorate homes, into the house before that date. copyright of projectbritain. com Christmas Decoration in the home In Britain today, few people would now wait until Christmas Eve.
Most people put up their decorations about a fortnight to a week before Christmas Day. copyright of projectbritain. com In the weeks leading up to and during Christmas, people hang decorations in their homes. These decorations are made of coloured paper or foil. Every house decorated for Christmas in Britain will have a decorated fir tree. Natural Decorations People also hang greenery around the house, such as holly and ivy. The needlelike points of holly leaves are thought to resemble the crown of thorns that Jesus wore when He was crucified. The red berries symbolise the drops of blood Jesus shed. Y copyright of projectbritain. com Nativity Many Christian homes will have a nativity scene. The baby Jesus is added on Christmas Eve. When should Christmas decorations be taken down? It is unlucky if you don t take your decorations down before the end of the, on the 5th January. This custom has been around since the reign of Queen Victoria. Y copyright of projectbritain. com Up until the 19th century, people would keep their decorations of holly, ivy, box, yew, laurel and mistletoe up until 2nd February, the end of the Christmas season, 40 days after the birth of Jesus. Robert Herrick in his poem \’Ceremonies for Candlemas Eve\’ writes, DOWN with the rosemary and bays, Instead of holly, now up-raise The greener box (for show).