Holly trees are distinctive in many ways. They remain green throughout the coldest months of winter, even producing bright red berries, and their leaves have thorns. Based on these characteristics, myths and beliefs about the special meaning of the holly tree developed in ancient times and continue to manifest in traditions observed in the present day.
Life in a Time of Darkness
In the cold, dark depths of winter, when all else is barren, holly not only remains green but continues to bear fruit. For this reason, from early Celtic societies until the modern day, people have found special meaning from the holly tree. To Celtic societies, holly represented the need to persist and to let life triumph even in times of darkness. Holly also represents growth and fertility, and the adornment of houses with holly during the winter begins with the early Celts and, despite church leaders at times attempting to forbid it, remained an important tradition throughout the Christian era up to modern times.
The thorns of the holly tree are seen as symbolic of its protective properties, acting to discourage those who would harm it. Holly was believed to deter lightning, and people planted it around their homes to protect against lightning strikes. Holly was also believed to protect against sickness, fire and witchcraft, and it was fed to livestock to protect them. The strength of belief in holly's protective properties remains so strong in some places that, when cutting down hedgerows that include a holly tree, the holly tree will be left untouched.
Hospitality and Generosity
Holly often shelters flying insects and, possibly based on that fact, Celtic people also believed that it sheltered woodland fairies. Adorning a house with holly provided a place for the fairies to seek protection and, in turn, they would bring luck to the house. Therefore, holly also represents hospitality, a virtue of great importance in Celtic society.
Winter King of the Forest
In Celtic mythology, leadership of the forest was exchanged between two kings, oak and holly. Oak ruled during the bright summer months, while holly ruled during the times of winter darkness. "Tinne" is the Gaelic word for holly and is related to the word "tanist," which means "dark twin," indicating that holly stands as the dark opposite of oak. Again, this myth suggests that holly represents the ability to live and thrive during dark times and the life force that persists, even in the winter.
Christian Symbols and Meaning
When Christianity arrived in Celtic societies, the traditional meaning of holly shifted to accommodate the new system of beliefs. The thorns on the holly tree were said to represent the crown of thorns worn by Jesus Christ, while the red berries represented the blood of Christ that purged humankind of sin. In another legend, holly grew suddenly to hide Christ's family from pursuit of Herod's soldiers and, in gratitude, the tree was permitted to remain evergreen. Holly's use as a Christmas symbol relates to its connection to the life of Christ.