Holly is inseparable from Christmas. But its use in wintertime celebrations goes back even farther than Christmas itself.
- The Story Behind: Podcast by Emily Prokop, who shares a Christmas memory in this episode
- Holly Society of America
Music from this episode
- Snowing — Peter Rudenko, via Free Music Archive
- Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas — 12 Tracks of Christmas, via SoundCloud
- The Holly and the Ivy — Richard M S Irwin, via Hymns Without Words
- Saltines — Podington Bear, viaFree Music Archive
Brian Earl 0:06
It’s no accident that traditional Christmas colors are red and green. And you don’t have to look any farther than the bow decking the hall or the wreath hanging on the door to understand why evergreen plants like mistletoe and Holly have been part of the Christmas tradition since the very beginning. Maybe it’s not the first thing you think of when Christmas comes to mind. It plays more of a supporting role, taking a backseat to the Christmas tree and Santa Claus and lights and snowman and candy canes, but keep your eyes peeled for the subtle ways that helps to form the backdrop for the season. You’ll find images of it on Christmas cards, Holly patterns on gift wrap in forming a bed of greens to festively display decorations and centerpieces on mantle’s and tabletops. And even though Holly is inseparable from Christmas today, it’s use in tradition state back much farther than Christmas itself. I’m Brian Earl, this is Christmas past.
Imagine you’re in Northern Europe during ancient times, you’re walking through a forest at winter time, the landscape is bleak. Snow blankets the ground and clings to the bare branches of trees that shed their leaves months ago. But not all forms of plant life have gone dormant. Through the blanket of snow peeks out the shiny, prickly green leaves and red berries of the holly shrub. Our ancient friends believed that any plant that could thrive year round must have magical powers.
Sue Hunter 1:40
Holly was considered to be good luck, and was brought into the house
Brian Earl 1:46
that’s Sue Hunter, the president of the holly Society of America. They’ve been around since 1947, promoting and sharing knowledge about Holly
Sue Hunter 1:55
when the rest of the woods went dormant during the winter time, it was a sign of hope that the world would turn green again and it always did.
Brian Earl 2:04
In fact, all evergreens carried that same kind of Mystique, but the ones with berries got extra attention. In fact, some people believed that Holly had supernatural powers, including the ability to help people see into the future. One ritual called for picking leaves off a sprig of Holly and tying them up inside a handkerchief and then placing them under a pillow. Sleeping on this pillow was believed to make the sleeper dream of his or her future spouse. It was also used to ward off witches and demons and druid people would wear it in their hair for that very purpose. It was also believed to prevent lightning strikes, defend against the evil eye, and even cure diseases like rheumatism and asthma,
Sue Hunter 2:50
and Celtic lore and mythology after the summer solstice. That was the time the holly King would come to rule the world and the Evergreen during the shorter days and the colder days of the coming winter.
Brian Earl 3:08
In Celtic mythology, the oak King and the holly King were twins fighting an endless battle for supremacy. Oak trees were considered sacred to the Celts, and they’re also deciduous, meaning that their leaves come off as winter came the Celts marveled at how the holly which had been hidden among the leafy oaks all year now stood out on the bear landscape. The Holly King had won the battle while the oak King stood naked in defeat until the winter solstice, after which the tides would turn and the oak King would reclaim the upper hand by mid summer. superstition and mythology aside, the stuff just looks pretty, especially during the relatively colorless winter months, so it was used to decorate homes during the time of the winter solstice, and ancient Romans would send boughs of holly to friends during their Solstice celebration of Saturnalia. Because Holly was used to honor Saturn, the God of agriculture during that time. They’d also use it in processions and deck images of Saturn with it. The Winter Solstice celebrations in Europe laid the groundwork for Christmas celebrations that would follow and many of the traditions from those souls to celebrations carried over. So it’s no surprise that Holly became part of Christmas. Early on, it was given a religious significance as the fortunes of the Hollywood were associated with the crown of thorns. This relationship appears in the lyrics of the Christmas Carol, the Holly and the ivy. Bringing boughs of holly into the house at Christmas time, predates the traditional Christmas tree by a wide margin.
Sue Hunter 4:40
Anyhow, he brought into the house prior to Christmas Eve was considered unlucky. It was also considered a good practice to get all of the holly out of the house 12 days after Christmas and burn it to ward off evil spirits.
Brian Earl 5:00
It was believed that tossing a sprig on the Christmas fire would bring good luck. There are about 400 species of Holly. It’s the English Holly that we most associate with Christmas. We grow plenty of it here in the western United States, mainly for decorative use. Even in places like California, where I live that don’t succumb to a long cold winter, Holly is a festive and attractive way to decorate the season. You just can’t have a holly jolly Christmas without it.
You know, it’s almost impossible to think about Holly and Christmas without being reminded of that famous Christmas song deck the hall. And even though it’s part of every Christmas album and playlist that I own, I have to admit it’s not really one of my favorite Christmas songs. My favorite Christmas song is in probably always will be silent night. And coming in at a close second place is Have yourself a merry little Christmas. And I know I’m not alone in my opinion, a lot of people place Have yourself a merry little Christmas right at the top of their christmas playlist. Like Emily in Connecticut.
Emily in Connecticut 6:11
Have yourself a merry little Christmas has always been one of my favorite Christmas songs. The simplicity of the lyrics and the secularity, of it has put it into a category of holiday songs that haven’t become too overplayed over the years. I tend to favor the Judy Garland version, which was originally used in the movie Meet me in St. Louis. And weirdly, it’s because it’s the more somber of the two popular versions, the other being sung by Frank Sinatra. Instead of the line hanger shining star upon the highest bow, the original lyrics were until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow, which stuck with me. There’s an idealism that goes with childhood that is inevitably lost over the years. And I probably sound like a real humbug right now. But there’s still a tiny piece of that idealism that reappears on Christmas. When families get together, put aside their differences, disconnect a bit and get a little reprieve from what’s going on in the world. And this song is a reminder of that.
Brian Earl 7:12
Emily is the host of the wonderful podcast the story behind here on Christmas Past we focus on the stories behind Christmas traditions. Emily tells the stories behind all kinds of interesting things. Look for the story behind wherever you get your podcasts. So what about you? Do you have a favorite Christmas song? A favorite Christmas memory? What are some of the recipes you like to make? What are some of the things you’d like to do during the season? I want to hear about it. And I want to share it with everyone right here on the show. It’s really simple. All you have to do is record a voice memo into your phone and send it to Christmas Past firstname.lastname@example.org. Christmas Past is produced in sunny San Mateo, California by yours truly Brian Earl. I’d like to thank Sue Hunter from the holly Society of America and Emily prokop host of the story behind Of course I’d like to thank you for listening in. I’d also like to encourage you to follow along on social media, search for Christmas Past podcast on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and find more information about the show at Christmas Past podcast.com. And hey, if you have a moment, I would love it if you could leave a review on Apple podcasts. It really helps more people find the show and it lets me know what you think. Thanks very much for listening. I hope you’re enjoying your Christmas season so far. And I know I would enjoy it if you join me again next time for another story from Christmas Past