Fresh Clips: The History of Holly

Learn about religious representation, sexual ties and other folklore in this brief history of holly.

| December/January 2012

  • Uncover some folklore about this holiday favorite: holly.
    Illustration by Antique Botanicals

Holly Facts 

• Ilex aquifolium 
• Commonly called English holly or Christmas Holly
• Native to central and southern Europe as well as North America. Grows as full trees or shrubs with thick, dark green, spiny leaves, white flowers, and bright red berries.

History of Holly 

From a symbol of carnal passion to a mystical source of protection, holly has served many different purposes for cultures throughout the world. Early Christians stole holly as a decoration from the ancient Romans, who used the plant in their winter festival of Saturnalia. However, while holly was an expression of the lascivious side of the Roman festival, it played a much more restrained role in the Christian Yuletide: its sharp leaves, red berries and white flowers were a representation of the crown of thorns, blood and innocence of Jesus Christ. This versatile plant was also a staple in many pagan protection rituals. Holly, a masculine plant, gave good luck to any man who carried it.

For the same effect, women had to carry holly’s more feminine equivalent, ivy. This flexible plant winds itself around holly bushes, demonstrating the double meaning behind the Christmas song, “The Holly and the Ivy.” Families would hang holly on the wall to prevent lightning from striking their homes, or they would keep a sprig of the plant by their beds for pleasant dreams. Holly was even thought to ward off malevolent spirits when planted around the home. This unique plant gives color to a muted winter landscape, and will continue to be a part of our winter stories for generations to come.

Sarah McCabe is an editorial intern at The Herb Companion.

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