Why Do We Have Holly at Christmas?
The custom of having holly in the house at Christmas probably comes from the old Germanic races of Europe who used to hang evergreen plants indoors during the winter as a refuge for the spirits of the forest. Also, holly was considered to be a symbol of survival by the pre Christian Romans and was much used as a decoration during their Saturnalia festival which was held at the end of December.
The Germanic Yuletide celebrations took place at the same time of the year. So when people began to celebrate Christmas, the feast of the Nativity of Christ, many of the older customs were preserved. Popular superstitions about holly still survive. Some people consider it extremely unlucky to bring holly into the house before Christmas Eve. Another idea depended on the belief that prickly and non-prickly kinds of holly were respectively male and female. So the kind of holly used for decoration decided whether husband or wife would be master of the household over Christmas.
Holly is known as christdorn in German, meaning “Christ thorn.” Both of these symbols are meant to serve as a reminder to Christians of Jesus’ suffering, but they aren’t the only stories tying holly to Jesus. One claims that the cross on which Jesus was crucified was constructed of holly. Another says that holly sprang up from his footsteps.
Today, Christians consider holly symbolic of Jesus Christ in two ways. The red berries represent the blood that Jesus shed on the cross on the day he was crucified. Legend states that holly berries were originally white, but that the blood Christ shed for the sins of humankind stained the berries forever red. A holly’s pointed leaves symbolize the crown of thorns placed on Jesus’ head before he died on the cross.
Before holly was hung in houses to accompany Christmas trees, it was considered to be a sacred plant by the Druids. While other plants wilted in winter weather, holly remained green and strong, its berries a brightly colored red in the harshest of conditions.
The Druids regarded holly as a symbol of fertility and eternal life, thought to have magical powers. In Druid lore, cutting down a holly tree would bring bad luck. In contrast, hanging the plant in homes was believed to bring good luck and protection. Holly was also thought to protect homes against lightning strikes. Romans associated holly with Saturn, the god of agriculture and harvest, and decked the halls with its boughs during the festival of Saturnalia.
Early Christian calendars mark Christmas Eve as templa exornatur, meaning “churches are decked,” though supposedly Saturnalia celebrators didn’t allow some Christians to hang boughs in honor of Christmas. Christians adopted the holly tradition from Druid, Celtic and Roman traditions, and its symbolism changed to reflect Christian beliefs.