The holly and the ivy are traditional decorations at Yuletide, the winter solstice when the declining sun is renewed and begins to gain strength again, and they feature in many seasonal songs. But do you know why?
The ivy is an evergreen plant which begins to grow on the ground but which then climbs the nearest tree in a spiral fashion. This associates the plant with the sun, since the path of the sun during the year is a spiral one, depicted as such on monuments such as Newgrange. Any plant with a spiral growth pattern was thus considered a plant of immortality sacred to death and resurrection gods such as Dionysus and Osiris; in Christian allegory it symbolised the eternal life and the resurrection of Christ. The evergreen leaves and red berries of the holly tree contrast with the bare branches of other trees in winter. Any plant which bears fruit in winter is especially magical. The flourishing of the holly in the winter death-time led to it being identified with Christ, the white flower emblematic of his purity, the prickles his crown of thorns, and the red berries the drops of his shed blood.
While the holly was considered a male plant, the clinging ivy was female (‘holly be a man and ivy a girl’ according to an old saying). A carol dating to the reign of Henry VI suggests that while holly was used as an indoor decoration, ivy was only used outside. In some old English Christmas carols holly and ivy are put into a curious antagonism, apparently connected with a battle of the sexes as in this fifteenth century example:
Holly and Ivy made a great party,
Who should have the mastery,
In landës where they go.
Then spoke Holly, ‘I am free and jolly,
I will have the mastery,
In landës where we go.’
Then spake Ivy, ‘I am lov’d and prov’d,
And I will have the mastery,
In landës where we go.’
Then spake Holly, and set him down on his knee,
‘I pray thee, gentle Ivy,
Say me no villainy,
In landës where we go.'”
The red-berried holly, symbolizing light, warmth, and light, was meant to prevail over the black-fruited ivy which signified the dark and cold of winter. One of the best known carols is the Holly and the Ivy, which has long been a traditional song for Christmas – “…of all the trees that are in the woods, the holly bears the crown” in the words of the old carol. In some traditions the holly-boy and Ivy girl take part in competitive games, playing forfeits with the singing of songs.
The holly and ivy are both associated with the Roman Saturnalia which took place at the winter solstice. The holly was Saturn’s club and ivy made the nest of his totem bird, the wren. On midwinter morning the first person over the threshold had to be Saturn’s representative, a dark man, known as the Holly Boy; women had to be kept out of the way. The Romans would send fresh holly boughs as a greeting to friends at the Saturnalia. In the Roman cult of Bacchus, the holly was paired with the ivy, and houses were decorated with both plants during the Saturnalia. Quintus Tertullian, in the second century CE, forbade the practice as a Pagan custom. However, the practice continued and the church were forced to re-interpret it by saying that the palms that greeted Christ on his entry into Jerusalem sprouted thorns heralding the ordeal he was to be put through, making the holly a Christian symbol of the crown of thorns.
In the Middle Ages, Christian mythographers decided that St John the Baptist was born at the summer solstice at the time of the weakening sun, announcing his own power would wane with the birth of Christ at the winter solstice, the time of the strengthening sun. John the Baptist is reported to have said of Jesus “He must increase, but I must decrease.” John is the only saint whose feast day is celebrated on the day of his birth, rather than his death. Christian scholars incorporated Pagan symbolism into their iconography to associate Christ with the waxing year and John with the waning, represented by the holly and oak respectively, though neither tree had any connection with Christianity or Judaism. It is this Christian myth that gave rise to the modern Pagan ritual of the battle of the Oak King and Holly King at the solstices. This bi-annual fight is reflected in the Arthurian tale of Gawain and the Green Knight, which may well draw on earlier Pagan traditions.
Church ivy saved from Christmas was fed to ewes to induce the conception of spring lambs. In Shropshire, children with whooping cough drank from ivy wood cups cut at the correct hour and phase of the moon. Wreaths of ivy with rowan and woodbine were placed near milk containers to protect the contents from invading sprits. An ivy leaf placed in water on New Year’s Eve that was still be fresh on Twelfth Night meant that the year ahead would be favourable.
Many popular superstitions still linger round the use of holly at Christmas. Tradition says that no branch should be cut from a holly tree, but rather that it should be pulled free in a method considered fit for a sacred tree. In Rutland it is deemed unlucky to bring it into a house before Christmas Eve or to allow it to remain after Twelfth Night. To burn Christmas holly on the fire courts disaster before the year is out. In some western counties of England the boughs removed from churches were treasured for luck throughout the year following; and in Germany, they were looked upon as a sure protection against thunder. Folk custom has it that cattle will thrive and sheep produce twins if some holly is hung where they can see it on Christmas Eve. In Scandinavia, people put up holly to celebrate Jul, believing it will bring luck to the house.
In Somerset ‘Holly Riders’ with berry-wreathed hats rode around the hill farms singing carols in exchange for cider and pennies on Christmas morning. On Boxing Day there was a peculiar custom called ‘holly-beating’ when men and boys chased female servants to thrash them on their bare arms with prickly holly. In some places, St Stephen’s day (Boxing Day) was actually known as ‘Holming (holly) Day’. On New Year’s Day, boys visited houses carrying a vessel of freshly drawn spring water and sprinkled the people and houses with a sprig of holly for luck.
Holly was also used for divination at Yule. In the north of Britain a future spouse could be determined by putting three holly leaves, named for the suitors and blessed in the name of the Trinity, under the pillow with the left hand. The first leaf to have turned over in the morning would be the future bridegroom.
Twelfth Night was Holly Night in Brough, Westmoreland. Hone, in his Table Book of 1838 gave a description of the festivities. The townspeople prepared a tree, fastening a torch to every branch. About eight o’clock it was taken to a convenient part of the town, where the torches were lit, the town band playing till all was completed. The tree was carried up and down the town in a stately procession which stopped every time they reached the town bridge and the cross, where the ‘holly’ was greeted with shouts of applause. Many of the inhabitants carried lighted branches and flambeaus. After the tree was thus carried, and the torches sufficiently burnt, it was placed in the middle of the town where it was again cheered by the populace. Then people would seize each end of the tree and endeavour to drag it to one of two inns they were contending for, and once this was accomplished, they would spend a merry night there.
In Germanic myth, the holly probably relates to Frau Holle (also Holde or Holda) the hag associated with winter and the Wild Hunt. In Scotland it was associated with another winter hag, the Cailleach Bheur (‘Blue Hag’) who brought winter to the highlands. Legends say her face was blue with cold, her hair white as frost and the plaid she wore the colour of winter stubble. Each year after Samhain she strode the moors and mountains smiting the earth with her heavy staff to beat down the grasses and harden the earth with frost. In winter she unleashed tempests and blizzards, but in the spring her power waned as the sap rose, weakening day by day until on the eve of Beltane, she gave up the struggle and flung her staff under a holly tree, where to this day no grass can grow. She stiffened and shrank to a solitary grey stone to wait out the summer.
It is no accident that the holly’s totem bird, the red breasted robin, is depicted on Christmas cards. In Celtic lore the robin is one of the birds which gave the gift of fire to humankind, bringing a flaming branch from the sun. In doing so the robin was burned and its Welsh name bronrhuddyn means ‘singed breast’. Offerings were placed out for the robin at Yuletide to ensure luck for the coming year.
Adapted from Yule, History, Lore and Celebration © Anna Franklin, Lear Books, 2010