Why is holly used at Christmas?

Posted by Linda Elliot on

Ilex aquifolium with lots of berries and covered in raindrops

As a UK-based business selling Ilex guayusa specimens- a revered Amazon rainforest holly that makes a delicious tea - it got us wondering why the European holly, Ilex aquifolium, is also revered in Christmas symbolism here.

If you'd have asked us “What plants or trees have mythological status in the UK?”, we’d have probably named the holly along with other things like oak and mistletoe.

On the other side of the world, among the Amazonian Kichwa people and other tribes, the guayusa holly is also revered - and is in fact the singly most referred to plant in their culture. This is due to its use in day-to-day life as an energy-giving beverage and how it also functions in medicine, ritual and festivities.

Here in the UK, we have the ritual of hanging wreaths of holly at Christmas. In the Amazon, the Kichwa have their own holly rituals, such as events themed around guayusa during times of festival.

As we investigated the subject, we learned much about the mystique that surrounds the beautiful European holly tree and tried to spot similarities in the magic shrouding the Amazonian guayusa holly tree.

The appearance of holly on things like Christmas cards came about with the Victorians, but its mythical status dates much further back - to pagan and Roman times.

Please allow us to take you on a journey that we hope you'll find 'w-holly' awesome :)

The Druids

Not much is known about the Druids of ancient times, but the earliest known reference to them occurs in 200 BCE. The Druids naturally had many mystical beliefs, and a reverence of the holly tree was one.

Holly was said to be magical because it stays sturdy and green while other flora wilts and withers during the cold season. It was looked upon as a potent fertility symbol and a sign of eternal life - cutting down a holly tree was said to bring misfortune. There was also a belief that it protected houses from strikes of lightening.

The Druids believed hanging holly in one's house would bring good luck and act as a charm that would ward off witches. Holly was often planted close to buildings for this reason. 

We draw an interesting parallel here to guayusa, where we learned that certain Amazonian tribes often have a guayusa holly tree planted outside their houses too. Older guayusa trees can normally be seen where there is evidence of past settlements.

In the times of the Druids, holly was believed to be a male plant, and ivy was considered a female plant. The popular Christmas Carol, ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ relates to ancient mythology around fertility. The male holly was considered good, while the female ivy represented evil. The words to Holly and the Ivy were first published in 1710 and some say it represents the 'battle of the sexes'.

We were fascinated to learn that the Druids would make a tea* with holly leaves and believed its consumption could help with afflictions like kidney stones, arthritis or bronchitis.

We took some time to study the ailments various Amazonian tribes believed the guayusa holly can help relieve. Here we learned the Highland Kichwa use guayusa as treatment for kidney problems, arthritis and fever reducer. The Kichwa (non-highland) have been said to use it as a diuretic, pain reliever and flu remedy. We found these similarities fascinating.

We also read that in Hampshire, UK, there was for time a belief that milk drunk from a bowl made from holly wood could cure whooping cough in children.

*Please note that you should not attempt to make tea from normal European holly. We include the reference to the Druids use of a tea merely as an interesting historical reference!

The Romans

The Roman god, Saturn, at one time represented the field of agriculture. Holly was considered to be the plant of Saturn.

The pagan Romans celebrated Saturn during a week long festival of song, dance, betting and feasts called Saturnalia. It was essentially a winter solstice celebration, rejoicing the time when summer overcomes the bleakness of winter. Christmas is said to have some of its roots in this festival.

During the festival of Saturnalia, the Romans would adorn the celebratory spaces with holly. This is where the holly wreath originates from, for Romans would give them to each other as gestures of friendship to hang on their doors at the time of the festivities.

Remember we said earlier, that the Kichwa have the guayusa holly central to some of their festivals? One of them is called the “Gran Guayusazo Bailable” which translates to the Great Guayusa Dance Fest.

There was another interesting synchronicity in relation to the fact that the Romans also gave wreaths of holly as presents to those who were newly married. Far away in the Amazon rainforest, a cutting of the guayusa holly is given to newlyweds to plant outside their new home.

Santa Claus

The 'Holly King' is a pagan mythological being who some believe is the basis for Santa Claus. The Holly King was said to have an adversary called the 'Oak King' - each representing one half of the waxing or waning year.

These two forces would battle to gain back (or try to keep) control of their respective seasons. The Oak King is said to be at the height of his power in midsummer and the Holly King at the height of his in midwinter. At the autumn equinox the Holly King takes control as the environment plummets into fully-blown wintertime.

This war between light and dark has been represented in traditional folk dances and plays across Britain for centuries, such as Jack in the Green or Mazey Day.

Christian traditions

Holly has been a central part of Christmas decorations in Britain from at least the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The Pagan and Roman customs surrounding holly were at one point or another adopted and transformed by the Christians.

The Christians saw holly to have a symbolic meaning in relation to Christ - the prickly leaves are said to signify his crown of thorns and the red berries are said to symbolise the blood he spilt. The bitter bark represented the gall that was offered to him at the cross. So, in these senses, it was easy for the Christians to procure and morph the holly it into the Christic mysticism of their own. Of course, some of the 'blended-in', pre-Christian traditions endure to this day. In Scandinavia holly is often called the ‘Christ Thorn’. 

It's been really interesting to learn about how these two amazing hollies - Ilex aquifolium and Ilex guayusa - have found their way to a special place in the heart and lives of humankind.

The next time you walk past a holly in the street or a wood, please take a moment to think about its importance, and its wider family in the humid rainforests of the Amazon!

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