Are you planning to deck your halls with boughs of holly this Christmas? Holly is synonymous with Christmas; it’s a classic holiday decoration. We see the distinctive, shiny green leaves and red berries on door wreaths, table settings, and Christmas trees. Images of holly adorn wrapping paper and Christmas cards. But did you know that the Irish were decking the halls with boughs of holly long before Christianity reached these shores?
Before St. Patrick introduced the Irish to Christianity, we had a belief system that valued trees and ascribed specific spiritual properties to different types of trees. And the two most important trees to our ancestors were the oak and the holly. The oak, they believed, was at the height of its powers and ruled in the half of the year when the days are long and bright. When the days shortened and the hours of darkness stretched longer than the hours of daylight, the oak leaves died and fell. The holly tree took center stage with its glossy green leaves and became the king of the trees for that season.
During the season when they believed the holly tree to have extra power and status, our Celtic ancestors brought boughs of it into their homes as protection. But they were very careful not to take too much, and they never cut down a holly tree. That would have been a sacrilege that they believed would bring bad luck upon them. The druid priests of the time sometimes wore crowns of holly.
The Roots of Irish Holly
Holly is a native species in Ireland. While the berries are poisonous to humans, they keep birds alive through the long winter. That we have always valued trees is obvious from the many Irish place names derived from trees. Oak names are the most common. The Irish word for oak is ‘dair’, which has many possible spellings. Derry City, Kildare, and Lough Derravara are a few examples of places in Ireland named for oak trees. Holly is cuillionn in Irish. Places named for holly trees include Glencullen, Moycullen, and Kilcullen, which translates as ‘sacred holly’. Cullen is also an Irish surname with many different variations.
When Christianity spread to Europe, many pre-Christian traditions and celebrations were adopted and reinterpreted. So holly, a powerful pagan symbol, was repurposed as a Christmas decoration. People began to say that the points on the leaves represented Christ’s crown of thorns and the red berries of His blood… but it is a bit hazy why the imagery of his death would be used to decorate the house at a celebration of His birth. The Druid’s holly crowns might be the link that ties it together.
Whatever your faith or traditions, holly is a beautiful sight in the damp cold of winter. While most of the forest is bare branches, the green leaves and red berries of the noble holly tree remind us that spring will come. What looks dead in December is only hibernating. Winter Solstice is also in late December, and as those of us who celebrate Christmas rush about with our last-minute shopping, the days are slowly, slowly starting to stretch out. We have a few more minutes of light the week after Christmas than we did the week before it. And that makes holly a gorgeous, joyful symbol of winter for all of us.