Christmas Holly is one of the most popular Christmas decorations

Christmas holly, which flourishes all across the Emerald Isle, even in the coldest of temperatures, has been a treasured winter decoration for thousands of years in Ireland.

Being a common part of the winter landscape, Christmas holly provided a free and easy way for even the poorest of families to decorate their homes for the holidays.

As with so many other symbols of holly has been a religious symbol in many parts of the world for over 2000 years. Ancient Romans associated holly with their Sun god, Saturn.

The Celtic people of pre-Christian Ireland used holly extensively. Fresh, green holly leaves and branches adorned the ancient Celtic homes throughout the Winter Solstice. The Druid religion even ascribed mystical powers to holly.

They would use tea brewed with holly leaves to treat a wide range of medical conditions such as arthritis, kidney stones, and bronchitis. But the power of Christmas holly went beyond its medicinal value...

Being the evergreen plant that it is, the Druids believed holly to be very special. While all the deciduous trees' leaves were drying up and falling away, the holly leaves kept the landscape green and beautiful.

Christmas holly brings color to a colorless landscape...and reminds us that although the daylight is scarce and everywhere it is cold and gray, springtime is just around the corner.

The red berries that Christmas holly produces have long been a sacred symbol as well. The ancient Druids believed they signified the menstrual blood of their beloved Goddess.

After the Winter Solstice, the Druid priests would go into the forests to collect mistletoe (another plant sacred to the Druids) and the Celtic people would follow them wearing holly in their hair.

Ancient Celtic placed holly leaves and branches all around their doors and windows in Wintertime. They believed the holly would capture any evil spirits trying to get into the house.

They also believed the woodland fairies would find shelter from the cold in the holly and bring good luck to their homes. An early mark of Celtic hospitality. Since holly is often used as shelter by the tiniest of woodland creatures, especially flying insects, it's easy to see how this superstition developed.

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Christmas Holly as a Christian symbol

As Christianity took hold in Celtic Ireland, many ancient Roman and Celtic traditions were combined and carried over into Celtic Christianity, including Celtic Christmas traditions.

The prickly green leaves of the holly are a reminder to early Celtic Christians of the crown of thorns Jesus wore on the day of the Crucifixion. The bright red berries symbolized the blood of Christ spilled for the sins of mankind.

Some say that holly is more than a reminder of the Crucifixion, but that it was actually a part of that historical day...

  • Some say that holly was the type of branch used to make the crown of thorns.
  • Some say the holly berries were white before that day, but that Christ's blood eternally stained them red.
  • Some even say that Christ was crucified on a holly tree.
  • Another Christian legend claims that holly miraculously grew to hide the Holy Family from Herod's soldiers. As a sign of gratitude, holly has remained evergreen ever since.

This last one provides a direct connection to Christ's birth, rather than his death. So it is more closely related to holly's place as a Christmas symbol.

Are these myths true? For those that believe them they are. And so Christmas holly helps reaffirm their faith, regardless of whether their beliefs are based in fact.

Because of all the associations with the Crucifixion and its prevalence in the Wintertime, Christmas holly was soon embraced as a symbolic Christmas decoration all across Catholic Ireland.

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The Legend of the Holly

The holly berry that burns so red
(Raise high the holly!)
Once was whiter than wheaten bread
(As love is better than folly.)

Whiter than shells along the shore
It blooms on its tree by a stable door.
Villagers come there, half-afraid,
Gifts in their hands for Child and Maid.

And one has nothing of note, so he
Fetches a branch of the holly tree.
Alas, alas, the little Newborn
Has pricked His finger upon a thorn,

Has left His blood on the spiny leaves.
Heavy of heart the holly grieves,
Sees in a terrible vision how
A crown of holly shall bind His brow
When Child is man.

For sorrow and shame
The berries have blushed as red as flame.
Says Mary the Mother,
"Take no blame.

"But be of good cheer as ever you can.
Both foul and fair are the works of man,
"Yet unto man has My Son been lent.
And you, dear tree, are the innocent

"Who weeps for pity what man might do.
So all your thorns are forgiven you.
" Now red, rejoicing, the berries shine
On jubilant doors as a Christmas sign

That desolation to joy makes way.
(Hang high the holly!)
Holly is the symbol of Christ's Birthday.
(When love shall vanquish folly.)

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Christmas holly and ivy go together as good-luck plants. According to superstition, holly brings good luck to the man of the house and ivy to the lady.

The Holly and the Ivy

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.

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

The holly bears a blossom
As white as the lily flower,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To be our sweet savior.

The holly bears a berry
As red as any blood,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To do poor sinners good.

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

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

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.

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In addition to those that have already been cited in the text of this article, the following resources were invaluable in the course of my research:

Tartans.com - "Celtic Origins of Holly"

ChristmasHolly.com

"ChristStory Christmas Holly Page" by Suzetta Tucker

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Click here for my other Irish Christmas Resources

Click here to find out the mystical history of Mistletoe

Click here to learn about the symbolism of the Candle in the Window

Click here to return to an Irish Christmas on Fantasy-Ireland.com

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