Most Western cultures associate the holly plant with Christmas, but holly's meaning has a long, rich history that reaches back before the time of Christ. Due to its ability to stay green through the harshest winter months, holly has deep-rooted symbolic links to life and hope. Ancient Druids, Romans, Celts and even Asian cultures embraced holly as an important aspect of annual celebrations and cultural traditions.
According to the Flower Essence Society, holly was a holy tree for the ancient Druids. Its old English name, holegn, was related to the word holy, and Druids hailed it as the official plant of the descending year. While oak trees were the "king" of the rising year, from the end of the winter solstice to the summer solstice, the Druids honoured holly through the fall and most of the winter as the year "fell" into cold and darkness. Druids believed that the sun had a sacred preference for holly, which allowed the plant to stay green year-round. Because of the Druids' status as a respected priestly class, their beliefs surrounding holly influenced the impressions of the general Celtic population.
Like the Druids, Celtic laypeople also worshipped the "brother Kings," the "Oak King" and the "Holly King," according to the seasons. Celts believed that holly offered protection from evil spirits. According to Plant Palette, few Celts dared to chop a holly bush down for fear of losing its spiritual protection. Holly and ivy were also viewed as brother and sister plants, with holly representing the "male" components of nature and ivy embodying nature's "female" aspects. Some farmers and gardeners in the UK today still avoid cutting the plant out of a sense of traditional respect.
In ancient Roman society, the holly plant represented best wishes and was often gifted to newlyweds. The official plant of the fertility and harvest god Saturn, holly wreaths were distributed as presents and used as decorations during the god's holiday, Saturnalia. According to Christmas-day.org, when church officials were selecting a day for the celebration of Christmas, they chose December 25 to coincide with Saturn's festival.
As societies transitioned from pagan beliefs to Christian ones, the holly plant continued to play an important role. Christmas-day.org states the mistletoe, a plant tied to pagan ritual, was banned by the church as a Christmas decoration with holly as the suggested replacement. Holly's thorns symbolised the thorns in Christ's crown, and its red berries represented Christ's blood.
Legend says that a little orphan boy gave Christ a wreath of holly shortly after his birth. The boy, ashamed by his humble gift, began to cry at Jesus' manger. Christ then touched the tear-laden crown and transformed the wet droplets into beautiful red berries. Others say that the holly plant grew leaves out of season to hide the holy family from King Herod and his malicious intentions.
For Asian cultures, holly symbolises fertility and divinity. The Chinese sometimes use holly during their New Year's celebrations, which generally occur in February.
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