Holiday decorations are springing up everywhere. It seems that it begins earlier and earlier each year. Most of us take pleasure in decorating our homes, especially with wonderfully scented evergreens. In doing so, we are keeping alive ancient traditions and ensuring that only good spirits will share our space.
Holly is an herb of the Winter Solstice, the time when daylight is precious. Druids considered holly to be one of the sacred plants, as its evergreen nature transcended the darkness of the season and promised that the earth would again flourish. Pliny the Elder (23 - 79 A.D.) exclaimed in his writings that holly repelled poison. Holly flowers - small white flowers that are followed by red berries - were believed to cause water to freeze. And he described its use as a wild animal deterrent, explaining that if one threw a holly branch at a vicious creature, it would cause it to lay down beside the stick. Handy, I'm sure, for those dark and foreboding forests where all manner of frightening beasts lurked.
Originally, festooning rooms with holly, especially around doorways, windows and chimneys, was felt to be an effective deterrent to witches coming through these openings. Medieval monks called it "Holy Tree" and believed it to keep away evil spirits and protect against lightning. The ancient Romans used it during their festival of Saturnalia, as a token of good will and the emblem of eternal life. It also came to be known as "Christ's Thorn" - its prickly leaves and blood-red berries a reminder of Christ's suffering on the cross. Custom held that it not be brought into the house before Christmas Eve, and it was equally important to remove it by Twelfth Night. Whoever of the household was first to bring in the holly, be it the man or woman of the house, would rule for the coming year.
The herbalist Nicholas Culpepper (1616-1654) counted several medicinal uses for holly. Leaves were used for broken bones and "members that are out of joint". The berries were felt to expel and purge, as well they might, and it is advisable not to ever ingest them. Water infused with holly leaves was sprinkled on newborns to protect them. And if you gathered, in silence, on a Friday after midnight, nine leaves of holly, then wrapped them in a white cloth with nine knots, and placed this under your pillow, your wish would be granted.
I'm sure most of us are familiar with A Christmas Carol. One of Ebenezer Scrooge's famous lines reveals the use of holly as a weapon against spritis. In disparaging the custom of wishing all a Merry Christmas, he suggested that those doing so be
"boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart"
The spirit of a murdered man could thus be contained and not released to haunt the living.
Holly plants are either male or female, and to produce berries you need at least one male plant. Holly makes an excellent landscape plant and there are hundreds of varieties and species from which to choose. They grow on every continent except Australia and Antarctica, and are easy, low maintenance plants. The usual botanical name is Ilex aquifolium, but there is a lot of variety in size, shape and even coloring. Ilex verticulata, commonly known as Winterberry, is a type that loses its leaves but is outstanding in berry production. Berries on hollies can be red, orange or even yellow. They add a cheery note to the winter landscape, and if they keep away evil spirits, so much the better.
Happy Holly Days!
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