History of Holly
Much like mistletoe, the holly plant has a long and magickal history. The ancient Celts and Romans used it during Winter Solstice celebrations, and over time this shifted into the Christian tradition of ‘decking the halls’ with holly during Christmas, and the Holly King, a precursor to Santa Clause, is tied to holly folklore. An evergreen plant with violent red berries, holly has magickal associations with fertility, protection, familial connection, sacrifice, and life, among other things. Let’s explore this fascinating and mystically wintery history of holly.
What is holly?
Holly is a plant belonging to the Ilex genus. Ilex aquifolium is the holly that most westerners think of around Christmas. Like the mistletoe berries, Holly has ‘berries’ that ripen in the winter, turning a vibrant red color. This contrast, the dark green and red in the midst of the cold, gray white of winter, has led to this plant being revered and used to brighten up households for centuries. Ilex means something like “evergreen oak” and aquifolium means “sharp leaf” – both very fitting because holly’s leaves are evergreen and they have sharp, almost thorn-like pokers (see picture below). The English word holly is interesting because it comes from Old English “holen”, which comes from a long line of words whose root means “to prick”.
The Ancient Romans and Celts
The history of holly stretches back to ancient Rome at least. Saturnalia was a Roman festival that occurred on the Winter Solstice. The people would honor Saturn by giving gifts to each other and it is recorded that they hung holly up on or above their doors to keep ‘evil’ out.
Holly was also sacred to the ancient Celts, especially the Druids. They also hung holly branches in their homes for protection and used it to heal those that were ill. It is with this culture that we see the myth of the Holly King, who was thought to rule during the winter months (more on that in the next section). Because of it being evergreen and its bright red berries, the Druids associated holly with fertility and immortality. They sometimes wore holly in their hair as a way of carrying its protection with them at all times.
One interestingly specific belief was that holly was said to protect one from being struck by lightening. This stems from holly’s Norse association with Thor, the god of thunder.
Although it was often considered bad luck to cut down holly, it was sometimes used to feed livestock in the winter (the leaves). It also had associations with control and virility, so there were those who used holly wood to make whips or handles for some tools. (Fun side note, Harry Potter’s wand was made with holly).
The Holly King
The Holly King's Song Through smiling eyes to you I say, 'Blessings on this Yuletide day!' For though my reign is at an end; Good cheer and joy to you I send. Celebrate now, the return of the sun/son! The Oak King's reign has just begun. Through the turning wheel of time, Each will have their turn to shine. So relax. Be still, for this Yuletide spell; Send love to all and all will be well!
Patti Wigington from Learnreligions.com has this to say about the Holly King “In many Celtic-based traditions of neopaganism, there is the enduring legend of the battle between the Oak King and the Holly King. These two mighty rulers fight for supremacy as the Wheel of the Year turns each season. At the Winter Solstice, or Yule, the Oak King conquers the Holly King, and then reigns until Midsummer, or Litha. Once the Summer Solstice arrives, the Holly King returns to do battle with the old king, and defeats him. … In some Wiccan traditions, the Oak King and the Holly King are seen as dual aspects of the Horned God…“
As you can see from the images, the modern-day Christmas Santa Claus seems to resemble the Holly King an awful lot. Although the background is different, it is certainly a tie-in to what much of the world practices now.
Christians and Christmas
As Christianity spread around Europe, the old holly traditions continued, taking on Christian-themed elements. For a time, pagan and Christian beliefs existed side by side. Holly was thought to ward off evil and wreaths were hung inside during the Yule season. Some believed fairies or elves could hide among the holly while waiting for St. Old Nick. Some people kept a spring of holly for good luck year round. Even the churches would hang holly inside and give a piece to their congregations as a way of spreading luck and cheer.
Apparently, in early Christianity the phrase ‘templa exornatur’ is written on Christmas calendars. This phrase means roughly ‘churches are decked’, and because holly was always used to decorate, we now have the Christmas phrase/song “Deck the halls with boughs of holly”. In German holly is called “christdorn” or Christ Thorn, showing how it has been associated with Christianity throughout the years.
Of course Christmas is just another way of celebrating the Winter Solstice, as is Yule, and as you can see, the traditions of this time of year are quite similar to those practiced thousands of years ago.
Like most plants, there is a myth that Mary, Joseph, and Jesus hid from King Herod in a holly tree and because of its hiding them, it was allowed to stay green all year. There is an association of Jesus’s blood with the berries and his crown of thorns with the spikey leaves.
Holly is toxic. The berries can cause nausea and vomiting, among other things. It takes about 3 berries before an adult will feel these symptoms, but children and pets can be affected by much less so be careful if you are decorating or using real holly.
In Magickal Workings
The magickal properties of holly are closely associated with its history. Like mistletoe, holly is toxic and should not be ingested. If you have children or pets, and you want to work with real holly, take care not to leave it out where they might ingest it. With that said, here are some magickal properties of holly:
- Fairy/Elf magick
- Winter Solstice/Yule rituals
- To connect with the Holly King or similar figures
You can do a lot with holly for magickal purposes. If you have real holly (or fake if you are more comfortable with that) you can hang it not just for decoration, but for protection. You can create your own wreath of holly and invite the fairies to stay (if you work with fairies), you can do a holly meditation to get in touch with the Holly King and Yule, you can use it in spells or rituals having to do with fertility, with making a sacrifice, and even for divination. Wear holly in your hair for extra protection or carry it with you for the same. You can also use holly for spells that you wanting to give an extra long life to – because of its association with immortality.
So, this is more of a meditation or sacred reading activity. I think it will help you get in touch with the energies of holly from the myths above. Think of it as a sort of meditation on the Winter Solstice/Yule, the Holly King, and the energies of holly.
Although it doesn’t have holly in it, I wanted to add on here that my new YULE BLEND of enchanted herbal tea is out now. Check it out so you can get yours in time for Yule!