Holly is a prickly green leaf that grows on a woody shrub that is capable of growing to tree proportions. Shiny red berries form from clusters of white blossoms. Holly has become a traditional Christmas decoration that is used in floral arrangements, wreaths and swags. Holly plants hold special meaning during the Christmas season.
The ancient Druid priests believed that the holly plant had "magical powers" because the leaves remained green all year long. Druids wore sprigs and wreaths of holly and mistletoe. Later the Roman culture combined holly with wreaths, symbolizing eternity as an unending or unbreakable circle. Romans gave holly wreaths as gifts and hung them on their doors as a sign of victory. Holly was used as a Christmas symbol and decoration after Christianity became a dominant factor in Roman life.
The pagan, Druid, Greek and Roman cultures believed that holly would ward off evil with its magical qualities. Arranging holly in circular patterns strengthened the magical powers to protect people during the dark days of winter. Romans offered holly to their harvest god, Saturn, during the traditional worship celebration of the Saturnalia festival. The festival was later absorbed by the Christmas celebration during the winter solstice season.
Holly and Christmas
Holly has become the Christian symbol of the crown of thorns that Jesus Christ was forced to wear during the crucifixion. The prickly leaves, which have as many as 15 sharp points, represent the thorns that pierced Christ's brow. The shiny red berries stand for the blood of Christ. It is believed that holly is the basis for the colors of red and green during the Christmas season, when Christians celebrate the birth of Christ. According to the Flower Essence Society, holly became known as "Christ Thorn" in Europe and "Christdorn" in Germany.
Holly orchards can be found in Vermont and in the Southeast and Pacific Northwest portions of the United States. Thousands of pounds of holly are harvested from individual orchards and sold each year.
Holly is commonly viewed as a Christmas decoration, but it has been a gift or decoration for other occasions over the centuries. The Chinese culture used native holly to decorate halls and temple courtyards in the New Year's celebrations (usually in February). Romans would send a wreath of holly as a symbol of congratulations to newlyweds. Today, holly branches are traditionally used to decorate churches in Europe at Easter time.