Today we think of holly as decor for Christmastime only. But throughout human history, different people, cultures and religions connected holly to their many customs and folklore.
The Druids considered holly to be a sacred plant and a symbol of fertility and eternal life. They thought holly had magical powers. Most plants wilt in winter, but holly with its bright red berries remained green even in the coldest weather. They brought the plant indoors to display as its bright leaves and red berries would bring light in a time of dark days. They believed that if you were to cut down a holly tree, you would have bad luck. Yet, they believed you could take the boughs in their homes to bring protection and good luck. In Druid lore, holly protected your home from lightning strikes! European mythology gods Thor and Taranis were associated with holly for this reason. Today we know that the holly leaves act as miniature lightning conductors, thereby protecting the tree and other nearby objects from lightning strikes. Modern science occasionally will help to dismiss superstitious folklore!
In Celtic mythology, from summer to winter solstice the Holly King would rule, then his twin the Oak King would rule from winter to summer solstice. Holly sprigs were worn in the hair of the Celts and the Druids at their summer and winter solstice observances performed by the priests at the mistletoe rituals. The Celts also incorporated the twins' folklore into their Mummers' plays performed around Yuletide. The Holly King would be covered in holly leaves and branches and was a powerful giant of a man. Because his holly trees were still green and lush in winter, while the oak trees had lost their greenery, he had won out. He wielded a holly bush as his club, and may have been the symbol used to create King Arthur's legendary Green Knight of the Round Table.
The Romans associated holly with their god of agriculture and harvest, Saturn. They would also decorate their homes and buildings with holly sprigs during the festival of Saturnalia, their harvest festival near the winter solstice. It is believed that the Romans were the first to give gifts of holly wreaths. They decked their statues of Saturn with holly and carried holly in their processions. Saturnalia is the festival upon which our Christmas holiday was modeled.
The Christians adopted the holly tradition for their own from the Druids and Romans. Early Christian calendars include the "churches are decked" on Christmas Eve with a holly notation, the templa exomatur , but they changed its symbolism to reflect their own religious beliefs. Jesus Christ is symbolized by Holly in two ways. First, the holly berries represent the blood Jesus shed while on the cross on the day of Crucifixion. Their legend believes the holly berries were initially white, but with Jesus' blood shed for the sins of humankind to provide their salvation, the berries were stained red. And second, the prickly green holly leaves represent the "crown of thorns" placed on his head. Some believe the cross for Jesus Christ's Crucifixion was made of holly, and that holly sprang up from his footsteps.
In German, holly is "christdorn" meaning "Christ thorn."
In pre-Victorian England, the Christmas tree was actually a holly bush! The holly tree was believed to have protective properties. When bushes were trimmed, if a holly bush were growing amongst the hedge, they would not cut the holly bush and would leave them untrimmed. In this way they believed the witches who would run along the hedgerow, would be obstructed from their unruly path. A more logical reason was to have a line of sight for plowing during winter season. According to history, in 1861 the Duke of Argyll had his road rerouted around a famous holly tree in respect of its power.
Holly leaves proved to be a nutritious food for livestock in winter, and some farmers even created grinders to make the prickly leaves consumable. Those who were more creative, would use the tree wood for inlaid marquetry and to make chess pieces. The wood was white, hard and close-grained. European folklore suggested that wood from holly tress or branches could control horses, so whips for ploughmen and horse-drawn carriages were made from coppiced holly. Hundreds of boughs and stems were cut during the eighteenth century for this purpose alone.
In Scotland the Gaelics called holly, Chuillin. The McLean clan adopted holly as their clan badge. Cullen, a Scottish town in Banffshire, may have also derived its name from a local holly wood.
Less common holly symbolism is to display the white blossoms of holly to represent purity. Holly was brought in the home to protect the family from malevolent faeries, or to allow the faeries to remain in the home without creating trouble for the homes occupants during the winter season. If the holly leaves brought to the home for display are prickly, the man will rule the house for that year, or if the holly leaves are smooth, the woman will rule.
"But the hue of his every feature
Stunned them: as could be seen,
not only was this creature
Colossal, he was bright green
No spear to thrust, no shield against the shock of battle,
But in one hand a solitary branch of holly
That shows greenest when all the groves are leafless."
from 'Sir Gaiwain and the Green Knight' ca 1370 -1390, author unknown
"Heigh ho! sing heigh ho! unto the green holly:
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:
Then, heigh ho, the holly!
This life is most jolly."
from 'As You Like It' by William Shakespeare