Saturday, November 26, 2016

Oh the Holly Has a Berry...

Re-posting a post from 2009. I'd forgotten I wrote this one. Enjoy!

Like many people, I like using holly as one of the greens to be used as decoration during the holidays. And like me, I wondered about the folklore and superstitions connected with this prickly plant. And as with many of our Christmas customs, the traditions have roots in ancient cultures, and were incorporated later into Christian and modern celebrations.

My mother always waited until Christmas Eve to bring in the greens, or to "bring in Christmas," as some people say. I thought this was because she didn't want the greens to dry out, and that was probably at least part of the reason. If you have ever tried to use hemlock branches as decoration, for example, you learned the error of your ways quickly, I bet. The needles drop almost as fast as the branches enter the house.

But holly retains its green color and red berries quite well. And the pine boughs we carried in lasted until after Old Christmas too. Today while researching holly, I found perhaps another reason Mom delayed bringing the evergreens into the house: having holly in the house before Christmas Eve or after Twelfth Night could cause quarrels in the family, and a misfortune for every leaf and branch! Goodness, I'd want to avoid that too--although I can see why quarrels might ensue--the dried-out leaves are so prickly that the one who had to remove them was probably not in a good mood for the rest of the day.

In pagan times, there was a ritual of a battle between the Holly King and the Oak King at winter and summer solstice; at winter solstice the Oak King was victorious and at summer solstice the Holly King would be triumphant.

The holly had its place in the Christian tradition too. It was and still is believed by some that the cross was made of hollywood and that the crown of thorns was made with holly. According to this legend, the holly's white berries were turned red by Jesus' blood. The Christianized version of "The Holly and the Ivy" refers to this story:

4. The holly bears a prickle
As sharp as any thorn;
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
On Christmas day in the morn. Chorus

5. The holly bears a bark
As bitter as any gall;
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
For to redeem us all. Chorus

6. The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown. Chorus

[7. The rising of the sun
And the running of the deer,
The playing of the merry organ,
Sweet singing in the choir. Chorus]

One version collected by ballad scholar Cecil Sharp, however, is probably closer to the original song:

Holly hath berries red as any rose,
The forester, the hunter, keep them from the does.
Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be I wis;
Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is.
Ivy hath berries black as any sloe;
There come the owl and eat him as she go.
Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be I wis;
Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is.
Holly hath birds a fair full flock,
The nightingale, the popinjay, the gentle laverock.
Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be I wis;
Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is.

In ancient times, holly was considered "male" and ivy "female." Probably this is because of the winding, supple nature of ivy and the strong, sturdy shape and sharp prickles of the holly.

It's not really surprising that plants that manage to remain green in the winter months would be thought to have special powers. In Wales, it is considered unlucky to pick holly when it has berries, and bringing it into a friend's home could cause death to an inhabitant. Some people collect the berries after the holidays and keep them as good luck charms.

Other superstitions about holly:
  • Carry a piece of holly in your pocket and you will never be struck by lightning
  • Holly flowers were thought to be able to freeze water.
  • Holly wood was believed to control animals, so many whip handles were made from holly
  • If you bring a branch with holly berries into the house, it will bring good luck, but for every berry that falls before New Year's a little of the luck will leave.
  • The Zoroastrians believed the the sun never cast the holly's shadow
  • new babies were sprinkled with water in which holly was soaked to ward off evil spirits (which makes me wonder--holly water=holy water?)
  • The Irish believed that decorating with mistletoe and holly in winter kept the fairies happy and won their favor
  • Smooth holly brought in for the holidays means the wife will rule the house in the coming year; rough holly means the man will be dominant. (Keep the peace--bring both inside!)
  • To cure a child of illness, pass the child through a cleft holly tree
Now, go gather ye holly while ye may (or was that rosebuds?). Just be sure to take it out again before Twelfth Night, don't lose any berries, and don't carry it into your neighbors house and all shouls be well...I think.
Trees for Life website
Encyclopedia of Superstition, Folklore and the Occult Sciences of the World by Cora Linn Daniels and C. M. Stevans
The Book of Christmas Folklore by Tristram Potter Coffin
The Winter Solstice: The Sacred Traditions of Christmas by John Matthews
A Book of Christmas by William Sansom
Caer Feddwyd website
Encyclopedia of Superstitions 1949 by Mona A. Radford
The Cottage Smallholder blog
Irish Superstitions for the Christmas Season


Janet, said...

That's a lot to remember! We've got a few holly trees and bushes in our yard, maybe (or maybe not) I'll bring in a few sprigs of it. I've always heard that the dogwood tree was used for the cross. That's why it's such a crooked tree now and can't be used for much.

Granny Sue said...

I have heard the dogwood legend too, Janet. I was surprised to find this story, but it was noted in almost every source.

Cathy said...

I was humming as soon as I read the title of the post! Ilove that carol! I rarely bring in anything with berries. We have a huge oak tree full of mistletoe outside our door and I leave it there. My terriers are not the brightest boys and I worry they will eat the berries.

Granny Sue said...

It's one of my favorite carols too, Cathy. I envy you the mistletoe! We have to go hunting for it every year. I don't have to worry about inside pets so I love it when the holly and mistletoe have berries on them. This year's mistletoe was berry-less. It looked as it it had berries at one time, but perhaps they fell or birds ate them?

Peggy said...

Granny Sue;

Thank you for the history, I love learning about our traditions. I learned a lot today, that's for sure!

Granny Sue said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it, Peggy. I love researching the lore behind traditions, and why we do things the way we do. It's fascinating.

Angela said...

You're right Granny Sue. That really is a fascinating tale about Holly. There are no Holly trees around my house. I haven't discovered mistletoe either.

Merry Christmas!

Mac n' Janet said...

Very interesting post, I will wait a bit on bringing my greenery in.

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