6 Tales Of Holly Legend And Lore

These colorful plants have sparked the imagination through the ages and grace our gardens and homes still today.

By Jan Wiese-Fales | Photos By

With evergreen leaves and brilliant red berries, hollies stand out in in the winter landscape after deciduous broadleaf trees have dropped their foliage. Their distinctive characteristics led to mythical significance among many peoples in ancient times.

Here are six examples of holly folklore and legends:

  1. Druids, a learned class among the Celts who served as priests and teachers, attributed magical powers to the plant and associated it with immortality. These beliefs made felling a holly bad luck, but cutting boughs of holly to hang around the house in the winter months was believed to provide shelter for sylvan spirits. The grateful “fairies” would in turn bestow good luck upon the home’s inhabitants.
  2. Ancient Romans associated holly with Saturn, the god of agriculture, fertility and harvest. They decorated their homes with holly wreaths during the festival of Saturnalia, celebrated on Dec. 17. Saturnalia was the pagan precursor to the modern-day celebration of Christmas.
  3. Legend held that if holly with smooth leaves were used to decorate, the woman of the house would be in control for the year ahead. Men would rule the roost if decorations included prickly leaved holly, and harmony would ensue with a balanced display containing both smooth and prickly leaves.
  4. In the book “A Modern Herbal,” published in 1931, author Margaret (Maud) Grieve a.k.a. “Mrs. M. Grieve,” cites the first century writings of Roman naturalist Pliny to describe some of holly’s legendary attributes: “Pliny tells us that Holly, if planted near a house or farm, repelled poison, and defended it from lightning and witchcraft; that the flowers cause water to freeze; and that the wood, if thrown at any animal, even without touching it, had the property of compelling the animal to return and lie down by it.” The latter quality extended to control of horses, and, up into the 18thcentury, many whips used by coachmen were made from holly branches.
  5. Early Christians maintained Christ’s crown of thorns was made from holly and that the berries, originally white, turned red, symbolizing the blood shed during his crucifixion. The words of the traditional folk Christmas carol, “The Holly and the Ivy,” reference that symbolism.
  6. Holly also has played a fabled role in romance. It was believed a man who carried a bag of holly leaves and berries would have a better chance of attracting a woman. And an unmarried woman who placed a holly leaf under her pillow would dream dreams filled with images of her future husband. A gift of holly to newlyweds bestowed a blessing for a happy and fruitful marriage.

Color in the winter landscape is still as magical today as it was to the ancients, earning hollies an eternal place in home gardens and a continuing role in many holiday celebrations.