“Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The Holly bears the crown.”
` Seasonal Carol
Decorating homes with holly at Midwinter has its origins in Pre-Christianity. It was in fact a pagan practice. Holly was considered a sacred plant by the Druids. While other plants wilted in winter weather, holly remained green and strong, its berries a brightly coloured red in the harshest of conditions. Romans sent boughs of holly as gifts to their friends during Saturnalia, the Roman holiday held from the first day of Capricorn in mid-December, that lasted for about five days. Christianity adopted this custom despite it being controversial due to the existence of a church edict forbidding Christians from decorating their homes with holly because of its origins as a Pagan practice.
Nowadays we are told that the holly leaves were incorporated into Jesus’ crown of thorns and that Christians believe that the holly berries were originally white, and when Jesus Christ bled during his crucifixion, the berries turned red. In Celtic mythology the Holly King went to battle with the Oak King at the midsummer solstice and held dominion over this half of the year until the midwinter solstice whereupon the King of the Oak conquers the Holly King, and then reigns supreme until Midsummer. Once the Summer Solstice arrives, the Holly King returns to do battle with the old king, and defeats him and so the cycle continues.
The Holly King is a personification of the winter and this endless battle between kings
reflects the rotations of the seasons. He charts the battle between light and dark, and of birth and death in nature. This taut dance between kings perpetuates the succession of nature. This battle for supremacy between the kings is essential.
“Green groweth the holly, so doth the ivy. Though winter blasts blow never so high, green groweth the holly. As the holly groweth green and never changeth hue, So I am, ever hath been, unto my lady true. As the holly groweth green with ivy all alone When flowers cannot be seen, and greenwood leaves be gone”Henry VIII
In Celtic mythology, there is a dark Holly King, disguised as a wren, while the Oak King is disguised as a robin. Every year at the Solstices, they fight for dominance, two sides of the same coin, the waxing, and the waning of the yearly round. Holly trees were traditionally planted near houses to offer protection from lightning. The distinct leaf-shape of the holly acts as a natural repellent for lightning energy, making the holly’s protective significance more than just lore. Furthermore, it was believed that witches could not pass-through holly hedges, and that all evil and malevolence would come unstuck in the spiky edges of the holly leaf and be unable to pass through either.
Taking sprigs from the holly was permitted but felling entire trees was considered very unlucky. The Gaelic word for holly is “Cuilleann” which translates as “gentle tree” and was considered to be the favourite tree of the Sidhe. The tradition of bringing Holly into the house afforded you a safe way of allowing “the good people” to cross your threshold and make them welcome for a while. There was one proviso though, the sprigs had to be removed before Nollaig na mBan on the 6th of January, for fear they would escape and do untold mischief.
Of course it is prudent to ask the holly’s permission before taking away any of her berries and to leave an offering in gratitude is always good practice. The close-grained white wood of the holly tree was used by Cú Chulainn to make spear shafts and the axles of chariots, and Gaelic chieftains were crowned with holly. The female holly tree leaf was used in divination and would be placed under the pillow to foresee the future in dreams.
The female holly is not thorny and nine were used. New-born babies were bathed in
a tea made from holly leaf to protect them from harm. The druid wizard Merlin in the legend of King Arthur used a wand made of holly wood. (He probably had a wand of every wood for every eventuality) We know also from folklore that holly wood was used to control animals and most especially horses. Most whips for ploughmen and horse-drawn coaches were made from coppiced holly.
“But the hue of his every feature
Stunned them: as could be seen,
Not only was this creature
Colossal, he was bright green
No spear to thrust, no shield against the shock of battle,~ from ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ ca 1370 – 1390, author unknown
But in one hand a solitary branch of holly
That shows greenest when all the groves are leafless;”
Holly was one of the seven Noble Trees (Crann Uasal) of ancient Ireland. Brehon Law, the native legal system of Ireland, which functioned until the 17th century. It was incredibly forward-thinking for its time, eschewing corporal punishment for fines and other forms of restitution. It provided extensive protection for trees, classified in four groups: Nobles of the Wood, Commoners of the Wood, Lower Divisions of the Wood, and Bushes of the Wood.
The Noble Trees were also known as chieftain trees and were the most valued. In some cases, the penalty for unlawfully felling a chieftain tree could be the same as the penalty for killing a human chief.
Consider this extract from an early legal poem:
- Esnill bes dithernam A danger from which there is no escape
- dire fidnemid nair. is the penalty for felling the sacred tree.
- Ni bie fidnemid Thou shalt not cut a sacred tree
- fiachaib secht n-airech, and escape with the fines for the seven noble trees
- ara teora bu on account of the fine of three cows
- inna bunbeim bis. that is fixed for cutting its stem. …
- Annsom de Most oppressive of it all
- dire secht n-aithlech is the penalty of the seven commoners of the forest
- asa mbi bo: for each of which there is a cow as payment:
- bunbeim beithe, the stem cutting of the birch,
- baegal fernae, the peril of the alder,
- fube sailech; the undermining of the willow.
- sluind airriu aithgein Declare restitution for them.
However, exempt from penalty were these:
- cairi fulocht benar, a single cauldron’s cooking-wood that is cut,
- bas chnoe foisce a handful of ripe nuts
- frisna laim i saith soi. to which one stretches not his hand in satiety.
The Ogham system of writing was developed in Ireland in the 4th century. The letters were
carved in wood and into the edges of standing stones, and were read from the bottom-up, the way a tree grows. In Ogham, the symbol for Holly is Tinne, three horizontal strokes on the left face of a stone.
Sacred trees and groves were considered as sanctuaries, and were often the location of
celebrations. The ancient Irish built no temples. Holly trees don’t make their sumptuous displays of red berries until they are mature and have been growing for around forty years, although the tiny four-petalled white flowers arrive much earlier and blossom in May and bees love them. Holly berries are highly poisonous to humans, even quite a small quantity
could be fatal.
In mythology, there is a legend concerning Fionn Mac Cumhaill and the Holly tree. One day Fionn and his warriors, the Fianna, were hunting on Keshcorran Hill in County Sligo in a territory ruled by a King who disliked Fionn. The King sent his daughters, three terrifying
looking women, to cast a spell. They sat at the entrance to a cave and spun the spell using strands from the Holly tree. Fionn and his men, being curious, investigated and fell under the enchantment, at once being trapped in the cave. “Upon three crooked and wry sticks of holly they hung as many heathenish bewitched hasps of yarn, which they began to reel off left-handwise in front of the cave.” “In order to view the harridans Finn and Conan passed through the hasps; whereupon a deathly tremor occupied them and presently they lost their strength, so that by those valiant hags they were fast bound indissolubly.”
A country charm to induce dreams of a future mate. Go out in silence at midnight on a Friday, and gather nine she-holly leaves (the smooth variegated variety). Once gathered tie them with nine knots in a three-cornered handkerchief, and lay them under your pillow before going to bed. Your future husband or wife will appear in a dream, but only if complete silence had been preserved from the moment of setting out to gather the leaves until dawn the next day… “Deck the halls with boughs of Holly, fa la la la la, la la la la.”