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Nov 07

Behind the Tradition: Holly and Ivy

Holly and icy are familiar, though understated, holiday plants. Used to adorn homes during the winter and holiday season, holly and ivy have been a staple in homes since long before the birth of Christianity. In modern days, we use holly and ivy as decorative accents in our homes to freshen the air and add cheerful spots of color in the cold, dark days of winter.

A Pre-Christian Tradition

Holly (Ilex) and ivy (Hedera helix) have been used since ancient times. With the weather during cold and dark, many varieties of holly and ivy were found to have remained green year round. Because of this, holly and ivy signify eternal life. They are also believed to have magical properties. In many ancient cultures, the icy winds of winter were believed to be ghosts and demons. Decorating with holly and ivy was thought to ward of evil spirits. In J.K. Rowling’s series, Harry Potter’s wand is made of holly because of its associations with repelling evil.

Holly:

Holly and Ivy have been used as decoration way back in Roman times. Holly, in particular, considered as an omen of good fortune and a symbol of immortality. Congratulatory wreaths were given to newlyweds. Holly was also given as a gift during Saturnalia because it was considered sacred to Saturn, god of agriculture and husbandry. In Norse mythology, Holly was associated with Thor, god of thunder, and plants were grown by the home to ward off lightning strikes. Early Europeans used holly as ornamentation during their winter solstice celebrations. The winter solstice is the longest night of the year and signified the gradual lengthening of days and coming spring.

Ivy:

The use of Ivy goes back thousands of years. It too symbolized eternal life, rebirth, and the spring season. In Roman times, Ivy was associated with Bacchus, the Roman equivalent of the Greek Dionysus, god of wine and intoxication. Ivy was the symbol of fidelity and marriage, often wound into a crown, wreath, or garland. It was also used as trimming in ancient festivals. For some cultures, ivy was a symbol of marriage and friendship, perhaps due to its tendency to cling. It served as a symbol and prosperity and fortune, which was adopted by early Christians, as it reminded them to help the less fortunate.

A History of Christmas Cheer

In early England, it was considered bad luck to use ivy alone in decorating for Christmas and would give the woman of the house the upper hand. It was also banished as decor by Christians due to its ability to grow in the shade, leading to an association with secrecy and debauchery. There were protests from priests who regarded the decorations as too pagan. Nevertheless, the tradition of decorating with holly and ivy was eventually accepted. The spiky leaves of Holly represented Christ’s crown of thorns and the berries represented his blood. In modern homes, holly and ivy are used in the creation of Christmas wreaths, boughs, and other trimmings. While belief in their mystical powers may have dissipated, nonetheless they remain beautiful decorations for the holiday home.