Long before Christianity came to Europe, December celebrations in much of Europe centered on the winter solstice. In ancient Celtic tradition, the Holly King fought – and won – a battle with the Oak King for supremacy over half the year from the summer to the winter solstice.
Dressed in red adorned with holly sprigs, the Holly King is considered by many to be the forerunner of our present day Santa Claus.
Trees for Life, an organization dedicated to restoring the Caledonian Forest of the Scottish Highlands, notes the Holly King may also have been the inspiration for the Green Knight of Arthurian legend. In that legend, Gawain rises to the challenge of the Green Knight during the Round Table’s Christmas celebrations.
Bringing Holly Indoors
It’s not surprising that the evergreen holly, with its bright winter berries would be celebrated in the darkest days of winter. As far back as Roman times the holly was used to decorate homes during Saturnalia.
Holly was brought into Celtic homes to protect the occupants from ill-meaning faeries or to shelter spirits that the druids believed inhabited the tree’s sacred branches. Whether the prickly-leaved or smoothed leaved variety was brought in determined whether the husband or the wife would rule the house through the coming year.
Holly and Ivy
Holly and ivy have been entwined in Solstice and Christmas celebrations since ancient times. Like holly, the evergreen ivy bears its fruit in winter. Holly, with its bright green prickly leaves and red berries, was considered male; ivy with its dark berries, pliant evergreen leaves and clinging nature was considered female.
Ivy was paired with holly to form an important part of the ancient Roman’s Saturnalia festival.
The pairing of these two symbols survives today in the popular traditional Christmas carol, “The Holly and the Ivy.”
Holly’s Christian Symbolism
Christianity adopted the holly into its own traditions, giving it new symbolism for the Christmas season. The tree’s white flowers were said to represent the purity of Jesus, while the prickly leaves and blood-red berries represented Jesus’ suffering under the crown of thorns.
In Victorian England, holly was so strongly associated with Christmas that “Christmas tree” was synonymous with the holly tree.
According to the Order of Bards, Ovayes and Druids, nineteenth century English cottages were hung with large balls of evergreens decorated with holly berries, ribbons, apples and paper roses. Three dolls representing Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus were often placed in the ball. A sprig of mistletoe hung from the ball gave it the name “the kissing ball.”
Folklore attributed holly with the power to protect homes from thunder strikes, and it has long been associated with the thunder god Thor. Now, according to the Trees to Life society, the spines of holly’s distinctive leaves have been found to act as miniature lightning rods.
Holly is a member of the family Ilex, which has at least 400 species. The Christmas species is the Ilex aquifolium with leaves that are either solid green or variegated.