Not just a berry but a symbol for life
Holly is one of those plants and symbols that, for most Americans in particular, evokes in the mind thoughts of Christmas time and the Holidays. With the shiny, green leaves and red berries in winter, the holly bush and the holly tree was adopted by first the pagans and then, of course, as the Christian movement moved into these areas of the world, they adopted the holly as a symbol for their Christmas celebrations.
The pagan people of Europe saw the holly, first and foremost, as proof that the winter months would end and that spring would come about with fresh food and better weather. They saw this evergreen plant, the red berries of the plant as a bit of color and joy in the colder times of the year. They brought pieces of the holly plant into their homes. These decorations stayed beautiful throughout the year and told them that winter would end and the spring of the year would bring forth burgeoning green plants.
There was also a belief that the spirits of the forest lived in the holly during the colder months of the year. The holly, with its greenery and the spiky leaves would protect those forest spirits, those denizens of the forest that protected the people. In the winter time, those holly plants might come into to the home to protect those spirits.
Enter the Christians. The early Christians, trying to adopt the symbology of the pagans in a move to bring the pagans into the flock, decided to bring many of those symbols into the Christian traditions. The holly, the Christians told the pagans was a great symbol and as a matter of fact it was a symbol of their God as well. It was a symbol of Jesus. The red holly berries were the blood, the spiky leaves were a symbol of the crown of thrones, this pagan symbol was easy to adopt into the Christian belief system and the Christmas traditions of Medieval Christians. And the tradition of tying the holly into Christian thoghts still continues today:
The Holly and the Ivy
The holly and the ivy, now are both well grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown.
Oh, 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 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 womb.
The holly bears a bark as bitter as any gall,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ for to redeem us all.
This was written for the 1952 film the Holly and the Ivy but you can see even in this modern song the mingling of the Pagan and the Christian. The holly, over the years has meant so much to so many people and it is still a hugely popular symbol for the holidays today. But remember as you decorate your house with the holly and berries of the season that you are also decorating it with the symbols that the pagans trusted to bring them through the winter months.