The Legend of Christmas Holly

Christmas holly (llex aquifolium – or Common Holly) has been used as a Christmas symbol throughout the ages. Often found on the covers of Christmas cards or other x-mas decorations.

Usually identified by its green foliage (which is quite spiny), shiny, and has bright red colored berries.

If you go to garden centers in the months leading up to Christmas, you will usually see Christmas holly potted as gift plants. Centers sometimes will place artificial wax fruit or sprigs of berried holly that they have harvested the day before.

The potted holly makes for a great table centerpiece (you will want to hide the pot itself with other decorations, of course). You can also place a potted Christmas holly plant on a shelf or hang it from the ceiling.

Get even more creative, and you could weave sprigs into a wreath or garland.

Fair warning… real holly can be a bit pricey sometimes. An alternative is the plastic holly plant, cheaper and widely available.

Photo: – Christmas Jewel Holly

If you want to grow your own Christmas holly plant you need to be in climate zones 7 – 9.

Other varieties can do well in zone 6, such as the Christmas Jewel holly tree pictured above. It will reach up to 10′ tall. They allow you to harvest during the wintertime quickly, where some Christmas holly shrubs would be covered in snow.

We are located in zone 5b and will consider creating a micro-climate area in our yard (future article). This hopefully will allow a variety like the Jewel holly tree to survive.

The tradition of the Christmas Holly plant

Pre-Christian Era

The Celts and people in northern and central Europe were commonly decorated with the holly plant. Why? Because it was one of the primary plants that remained green (evergreen) and had great-looking red fruits.

To them, it was a powerful and mysterious plant that possessed healing powers. This may be because the holly berries are poisonous. And it something has the power to kill.. that is a form of magic.

Story has it that they even thought it was able to repel lighting.

The Holly King

The Holly King (wiki link) and the Oak King were two opposing twin brothers. Celtic legend says the Holly King wore the Holly as a crown and also had a club made of the wood of Holly. The Holly King would assume power during the fall and bring winter. After the winter solstice the two kings would fight again and then the Oak King would regain power and bring the return of summer. These roles would go back and forth bringing the cycling of the seasons.

The Celts would create their crowns made of holly during festivities to celebrate. Even hanging holly over their doors and windows to help keep evil away.

Over time this created the holly symbolism we know today as welcome and hospitality.

Some historians think Santa Claus evolved from the legend of the Holly King.

Christian Holly Era

The Christian church quickly did away with holly because it came from again origins. But, holly’s long-standing history of being pagan was forgotten and included in Christmas rites and rituals.

Some Christian Holly Legends

The most common Christian holly legend is of Jesus’s crown of thorns.

We know of Christmas holly to have red berries. But legend has it before Jesus’ arrival; the holly berries were white.

During his crucifixion, Jesus wore a white holly berry crown, and the blood changed the white to red. Which holly berries remain colored today, and why Christmas decorations use holly branches to celebrate Jesus.

Another holly legend is the Massacre of the Innocents. Written the the Gospel of Matthew.

King Herod set out to kill all the male children to get rid of the chance of a usurper.

Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt to protect baby Jesus.

Roman soldiers spotted them and started approaching. The family hid behind a Christmas holly tree, and the branches magically bent and concealed them.

After they were safe, Mary blessed the holly tree. With this blessing, the holly retains its green color year-round.

Massacre of the Innocent – Photo: WIkipedia

The interesting thing to note here is that the holly tree prefers a moist, cool climate. Some historians think these legends are not credible because holly may not have even grown in the Middle East in the period Jesus was there.

Holly in the Present

So as you can see, the holly plant has some roots in religion. This is why people think it may have received its name for being “holy.”

But… that is not how the holly name originated.

Holly is an Indo-European word that means “thorny plant”.

Holly is said to have informed the naming of Hollywood. Supposedly California holly, also known by its scientific name (Heteromeles arbutifolia, aka Christmas berry), covered the Los Angeles area. The red berries gave off a red haze, so they called it holly wood (forest). Although, this variety does not have spiny/thorny leaves like true holly.

Unfortunately, this legend also seems to be untrue. A historian now thinks it was simply because a wealthy person liked the sound of the name and had nothing to do with the holly shrubs in the area.

Miguel Vieira, Wikimedia Commons –  (Heteromeles arbutifolia) – California holly

So while we are constantly learning where holly came from and its legends, holly remains a popular choice for Christmas decorating. Which is great if you can source it locally and cheap (grown yourself even better).

Europeans still believe they will get a year of good luck if they bring the holly inside for winter.

While in France, it is more of a timing tradition. Bring it inside before December 24th, and you will have misfortune.

Despite which story you subscribe to… we encourage you to get to know the Christmas holly plant and celebrate the holidays with nature.

Last Updated on February 25, 2022 by Davin