Beloved as a cut green for Christmas decor, the much-heralded boughs of English holly feature glossy, dark-green, spiny-edged leaves and clusters of bright red berries that cling to the thorny branches throughout winter. The use of this familiar foliage in holiday celebrations predates Christian holidays; the roots of the holly branch in winter festivities can be traced back to a number of ancient religions.
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The Romans, Greeks and Scandinavians used seasonal greenery to decorate their homes for winter galas and to curry favour with specific gods. For example, in Roman mythology, holly was strongly associated with the god Saturn and was, therefore, brought to his temple and used in all festivals and feasts that were given in his honour.
The Druids who wandered the English Isles and other parts of Celtic Europe devoted a great deal of time to the worship of the sacred oak tree. Consequently, they also believed the mistletoe that was frequently found wrapped around the oak tree was a holy plant, primarily because it remained green long after the leaves of the oak had fallen. As a result, they often chose to include mistletoe in their winter festivities. Mistletoe was not only decorative, it was thought to have powerful curative properties. In fact, mistletoe was so strongly connected to paganism, the early Christian church forbid the use of it as a decorative item; they suggested replacing the much-loved mistletoe with branches of holly instead.
In Christian holiday celebrations, holly branches are said to serve as a reminder of the crucifixion of Christ. The evergreen foliage suggests everlasting life, the sharp spines on the leaves and the barbed branches symbolise the crown of thorns, and the bright berries represent His blood. In the early days of the church, holly boughs were used to decorate church pews, altars and window sills for the Christmas holiday. Over time, the eye-catching swags of greenery came to be used in homes, where they were frequently draped over fireplace mantels and staircases.
Modern Holiday Decor
Nowadays people deck the halls with boughs of holly without giving much thought to the meaning. Holly is simply a traditional part of the holiday decor, much like evergreen trees, wreaths, poinsettias, mistletoe and stockings. Surrounded by brightly coloured ribbons and softly scented candles, holly centrepieces and swags add a festive, celebratory touch to any decorating scheme. Fresh cut greenery lasts anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, though care should be used when handling the stems, as the branches bear sharp barbs.
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- MLive Home and Garden; Holiday Plants Full of Tradition, Symbolism; Susan C. Shine; December 2008
- Idea Marketers; Holly -- Symbolism, Uses and Tradition From the Time of the Romans, Greeks and Druids; Laura M. Scott
- "New Complete Guide to Gardening"; Susan A. Roth; 1997