Although the holly plant (Ilex) is seen throughout the year, it is typically around the winter holiday season that this evergreen shrub gets the most attention. It is often thought of as a Christmas plant, but the use of the holly plant actually goes back much further than the birth of Christ and its meaning can even be traced back to the ancient Druids, according to University of Illinois Extension.
The leaves of the holly plant have long been prized for their ability to stay green even in the winter. For ancient Druids the holly bush became known as the plant “the sun never forgot” since it was often seen in the woods as the only spot of green during the winter amongst the otherwise dormant trees. Celtic people often used pieces of the holly plant in winter solstice celebrations and its glossy green leaves were thought to represent the renewal of the coming spring.
In Christianity, the berries of the holly plant represent the blood that Jesus shed when he was crucified, according to the Evansville (Illinois) Courier & Press online. There is a story that the berries were actually once white, but a shepherd brought a sprig as a gift for the young Christ child and when the baby Jesus reached out for them, the berries turned a deep red. Today this same color red is often used in decorating at Christmas time although the red holly berries are now simply a compliment of holiday color during the winter season.
The thorns of the holly have several meanings. It is often thought of as a symbol for the crown of thorns Jesus wore on the cross and the name holly tree is thought to have once been “holy tree,” according to University of Missouri Division of Plant Science. In the Asian culture, however, the thorns of the holly plant are thought to bring fertility and power. The ancient Romans were even known to give the gift of a holly plant to newlyweds to represent goodwill.
There are many superstitions associated with the holly plant. Scandinavians once thought that if it was planted near a house, it could protect the home from lightning. Celts believed that if a twig was brought inside it would protect the people that lived there. Interestingly, who would "rule" the house through the coming year was said to depend on whether the twig was from a male or female holly.
In ancient times the holly plant was not just revered during the winter. Even during the rest of the year Celts believed the plant offered them protection and cutting down a holly bush would bring them misfortune. Legend has it that in 1861 the Duke of Argyll actually rerouted a road that was being built just to avoid having to cut down an old holly plant that was growing in its path, according to University of Illinois Extension.