Floral Folklore: The Meaning of Holly

Floral Folklore: The Meaning of Holly

If you have a December birthday, Holly is your birth flower – or, more precisely, your birth tree! The prickly English holly we associate with Christmas (and shown in our December birth flower holly print) is one of 600 species around the world. It comes in all shapes and sizes and you can even get holly with black, white or yellow berries.

But we love red holly berries best of all – is there anything more cheering to see against a crisp blue sky or icy snow on a winter walk? Here are a few more good reasons to be a holly fan.

3 Reasons to Love Holly

Holly image with green leaves and red berries against clear blue sky owned by Flora Botanica Store

1. Its glossy evergreen leaves provide colour all winter long, even on the dullest days, and make it perfect for festive wreaths and home decor. You can deck the halls with boughs of holly that last for weeks. (image: copyright Flora Botanica)

2. Though toxic to humans and pets, the berries are a brilliant source of food for wildlife. Birds like the redwing, fieldfare, blackbird and thrush can happily tuck into a holly feast with no harm. Plus the leaves make a fine winter snack for red deer, sheep and donkeys, while the leaves beneath the tree make a handy hibernation den for hedgehogs.

3. The wood is strong and is used to make furniture, chess pieces, tool handles and walking sticks. It also makes a good roaring fire once thoroughly dried out.

And then there's all the wonderful magic, meaning and mythology surrounding holly, some of which dates back hundreds of years. 


Sacred and Holy Holly

Gift Giving With Sprig of Holly Saturnalia Meaning of Holly blog on Flora Botanica

Saturnalia was a popular winter solstice celebration in Ancient Rome. It began on December 17 and lasted a week. During the festivities, everybody (even slaves) had time off to enjoy the revelries and to make offerings to Saturn, the god of agriculture, abundance and time, among other things. Holly was believed to be the sacred plant of Saturn so, during partying, Romans often wore holly crowns. To bring good luck, they decorated their homes with wreaths and boughs.

Gift-giving was a huge part of Saturnalia and it was customary for friends to give each other gifts with sprigs of holly attached too. Many rituals of Saturnalia still exist in modern Christmas traditions today. You can read more about them at the Ashmolean Museum. (image: Kari Shea)

Saturn wasn't the only holly lover, ancient druids also believed holly to be a sacred plant. They were enchanted by the fact that it stayed green when everything around it died and they revered it as a symbol of everlasting life, fertility and the rebirth of the sun. In solstice ceremonies, they wore it on their heads or in their hair.

Meanwhile, early Christians saw holly as a symbol of Christ - the leaves represented his crown of thorns and the berries represented his blood. There's also a tale that Jesus made holly evergreen as thanks for concealing him in his cradle when he was a baby.


Holly Superstitions in Ancient Folklore

Holly Wreath on Door image by Phil hearing

There is a centuries-old superstition that keeping holly in the home or hanging holly wreaths on your front door brings protection and helps keep away witches, goblins or the devil. The idea is that the evil spirit gets caught in the prickly leaves so can't cause harm. Historically, some landowners even planted holly hedges to prevent visits from witches. (image: Phil Hearing)

Ancient Romans onwards believed that holly could protect you from lightning strikes, so planted it near their homes or brought it inside for protection. It turns out there's truth in this belief as the spines of holly leaves are effective lightning conductors.

Due to its protective qualities, holly became associated with good luck. Some even believed that fairies sheltered in holly bushes, so if you brought a branch inside, you would be blessed by the fairies in return for giving them a warm winter home.

Conversely, cutting down a holly tree was a surefire way to bring bad luck – and it was always considered wise to ask a holly tree politely before trimming off a bough. Even better if you left a small offering – a silver coin by the trunk of a holly tree was said to keep the fairies happy and ensure good luck for the year ahead.

Another old custom was to burn holly on Twelfth Night to ensure a year of happiness ahead.

Holly's prominence during the winter and its links to Christmas, protection and luck have secured its appearance in many songs and stories. 'Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly' was originally a Welsh song to celebrate New Year and is over 400 years old, while 'The Holly and the Ivy' song was a Medieval folk song long before getting a Christian carol makeover.

Meanwhile, this pagan story of the Holly King and Oak King is probably even older.


The Story of the Holly King

Father Christmas or could be The Holly King on the cover of The Circle magazine in 1907

In pagan and Celtic folklore, holly and winter is personified as the Holly King – usually a bearded man wearing a crown of holly, sometimes carrying a holly staff. He looks an awful lot like Father Christmas and it's highly probable that he was the inspiration for how Santa looks as we know him.

The Holly King's nemesis is the Oak King, who personifies summer, and the two are locked in eternal battle, both determined to rule the year. (In some versions, the kings are twin brothers.)

However, they are each fated to rule for only six months at a time. At the end of the Holly King's sovereignty, the Oak King rises again and defeats him. This always happens at the winter solstice on December 21 or 22.

The Oak King then takes over, paving the way for longer daylight hours and warmer days. All is going well for Oaky until the summer solstice (June 20 or 21), when the Holly King swoops in and takes charge again, setting in motion the darker, colder months ahead, and so it goes on – the cycle of the seasons. (image: Rawpixel)


The True Meaning of Holly

Holly symbolises Foresight on a Dukes Brand cigarette card from the 19th century depicting holly and a young girl dressed in blue and white furs

One of the oldest Celtic uses of holly was as an aide to seeing the future. People would pop a sprig of smooth leaves under their pillow in the hope of visionary dreams. Alternatively, they'd use it in complex spells to find out whether their sweetheart would be their future spouse.

This might be why Victorian floriographers universally agreed that, in the language of flowers, holly stood for foresight. (image: Metmuseum, Dukes Brand 'Language of Flowers' cigarette cards)

Meanwhile, holly represented something else entirely to indigenous peoples in the Americas, who saw its thorns and hard wood as a symbol of strength and its ability to survive harsh winters as a sign of fortitude. So much so, they would wear a sprig of holly to signify their bravery in battle. Alongside the druid belief that holly symbolised the determination of life to triumph over adversity, it's fair to say that holly is a plant that has represented resilience to many.

Finally, over time, beliefs about holly as a magical protector may have faded, but the desire to decorate our homes with it didn't. For hundreds of years before the Victorians instigated the long-lasting fir tree trend, holly was everyone's beloved Christmas tree. It was widely loved and admired for the good cheer its evergreen leaves and bright berries brought to the house in bleak winters – and it still brings good cheer today.

December Birth Flower Holly Art Print with vintage holly illustration from Flora Botanica Store

That's why, after researching the three characteristics that best describe holly and people born in December for our December Birth Flower Print, we chose:

  • Courage
  • Cheerfulness
  • Intuition

Three attributes we think any December-born person would be happy to be associated with, don't you agree? Does it describe anyone you know who has a December birthday – or someone you know with the name Holly? (Which, after all, is a name inspired by the plant.)

If so, our Holly wall art print could be the perfect gift for them - or, if you're looking for a unique and customised gift, we also offer a personalised version of this Holly print design.

We hope you've enjoyed learning about the magical history of holly and have fun decking your halls with holly boughs – real or fake – this December.

May its bright and cheerful berries bring you the luck of the fairies!

Flora B x

Santa's elves painting holly berries red vintage illustration public domain rawpixel

 (image: Rawpixel)

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