During the recent wreath making classes hosted by Local Color Flowers, I noticed that the holly hardly ever gets used. Of all the evergreens we pre-cut and offer to students, the holly is rarely touched. It must be the thorns that deters them. Students tend to lean toward magnolia, cedars, firs and berries but as folklore has it, the most commonly used holiday decorations were holly and ivy.
Bringing holly and ivy indoors dates back to the 4th century when Pagan people would celebrate the winter solstice or the “return of the sun”. It was considered bad luck to bring these evergreens indoors before the solstice (December 21st/22nd) and equally bad luck to leave them up past the twelfth day of Christmas, (January 6th, also known as Epiphany). The hardiness of both plants was believed to ward of evil spirits and protect the household through the winter, as well as provide homes for faeries and spirits wishing to escape the cold. These greens would give people hope and reassurance that Spring would eventually return.
According to folklore it was said that whichever plant, holly or ivy, made it’s way into the home first would predict whether the husband or the wife would run the household the following year. Holly having associations with masculinity and ivy with femininity. In Roman times wreaths of holly and ivy were given to newlyweds as a token of good will and good luck for the future.
As Christianity spread through Europe, pagan traditions were reluctantly incorporated along side Christian celebrations. The ancient symbolism of both holly and ivy were altered to conform to new Christian beliefs so that people could continue to deck their halls without being damned. While holly formerly symbolized “protection and good will” it began to take on new meanings. The leaves and berries would symbolize the crown of thrones worn by Jesus and the drops of blood that was spilt. Ivy on the other hand held it’s original symbolism as representing “eternal life”.
As time when on, holly and ivy remained the predominate evergreens in holiday decor throughout Europe and the New World. Every establishment from churches, houses, bars and schools would be decorated. The tradition of trimming interiors grew to decorating front doors and streets. Cards and wrapping paper use holly and ivy as a symbol of the season and there are a number of carols that incorporate the plants into their lyrics. In fact, holly was the favored decoration for celebrating Christmas until the 1800’s when “Prince Albert popularized the Christmas Tree”.
All symbolism and tradition aside, the only green plants around my home right now are holly and ivy. Even though I am a nut for symbolism, I think it is possible that people just used what was available, abundant and beautiful in December to decorate their homes. I can’t think of another time of year where people emphatically decorate their homes with plants. I guess their is some magic to it after all.
In a couple of weeks I will defiantly celebrate the return of the Sun and longer days by decorating my home with a tree, a wreath and perhaps some garland. I’ll fold in a little Christianity and a whisper of Santa Claus and I’ll be sure to make it all disappear by January 6th. I hope to find more people reaching for holly and ivy in our upcoming holiday centerpieces class and open studio sessions! Now to get rid of those pumpkins. ;)