A member of the Ilex genus and grown in North America, China, Japan and Europe, the holly bush is often used as a shrub border but can grow as tall as 80 feet when unattended. Cultural meanings associated with the holly bush date back to the ancient Druids, with worldwide associations present throughout history.
The Crown of Thorns
The name Holly Bush, according to legend, was named from "the Holy Bush," which was the crown of thorns worn by Christ. The holly bushes berries, which were red, represented drops of blood on Christ's forehead.
The holly bush is often associated with Christmas because of its use in Pagan winter celebrations. Known for its ability to remain green throughout the winter, the holly bush was called the bush that "sun never forgot" by ancient Druids, who revered the plant for its sustaining nature.
According to the website BrownieLocks, the holly bush was used as part of the twelfth night celebration, which was an ancient holiday on January 5 that marked the end of the 12 days after Christmas. In Westmoreland, England, a holly bush or young ash tree was lit on fire and carried throughout the town while townspeople played music. When the bush or tree was no longer on fire, townspeople would form groups that fought for the remains, followed by joyous partying in the streets.
The Briery Bush
In England and Scottish cultures, the holly, or prickly, bush is used in ballads to describe unhappy love. Songs such as "The Briery Bush," which was also known as "The Maid Freed From the Gallows," tells the story of a girl saved from pirates by her lover after her family refuses to pay her ransom. The holly bush is used as a metaphor in the song for the bitterness of love. The song, which is one of the oldest recorded ballads with the holly bush symbol, has similar versions in European, Scandinavian, Baltic and African countries, and was made into a children's game (accompanied by the song) in England's Lancashire in the 1800s.
International Celebration Symbols
In ancient Rome, the holly bush represented goodwill and was often given to married couples as a post-wedding gift. In December, the ancient Romans celebrated the holly bush as part of their Saturnalia holiday, which celebrated the Saturn God of husbandry and sowing. In Asia, the holly bush is associated with fertility and divine power, and was often used during the Chinese New Year celebrations in February. The holly bush in Celtic mythology was a symbol of spring's renewal, which was celebrated during the winter solstice.
In Celtic tradition, the holly bush represented protection from evil spirits. Holly bushes were placed in homes in the winter as protection, and the sex of the holly tree would determine the ruler of the home in the coming year (the man or the woman of the house). Celts would also refuse to cut down a holly bush, which would cause its protective nature, and that of the property near it, to vanish. In Scandinavian myths, the holly bush was said to protect the home from lightning, as they believed that the holly bush was originally owned by Thor, the thunder and lightning God.