Saturday, 22 December 2012

The Fabulous Fables of the Holiday Holly

The Holly and the Ivy,

Now both are full well grown,

Of all the trees that are in the wood,

The Holly bears the crown.

                    An ancient belief is that the Holly is the King of the Trees, as Holly is a masculine principle (Ivy, the female principle, is its Queen). In ancient Rome, holly was sacred to Saturn and was used to celebrate Saturnalia, the mid-winter feast in his honour, when the Romans brought boughs of holly into their homes as decorations. 

In the pagan north, celebrants also brought holly boughs and other evergreens to their sacred groves, to replace the foliage lost during autumn and to mark their places of worship. In his Sylva Florifera (1823), Henry Phillips tells us that the early Christians followed this custom, drawing suspicion away from themselves by also decking their meeting places with evergreens during the winter festivals. A folk-etymology reassured their delicate sensibilities by equating ‘holly’ with ‘holy’, and they found satisfying associations with the holly’s prickles and Christ’s crown of thorns, the white flowers with purity and the red berries with his blood, whilst the evergreen nature of the plant handily symbolised eternal life. 

In fact, ‘holly’ derives from Old English ‘hollin’, ‘holin’ and ‘holme’, which in turn come from the Anglo-Saxon ‘holegn’ and Norse ‘hulf’.’ Holly has male and female trees but the difference has nothing to do with the thorny leaves – after a holly tree grows above about ten feet, the leaves will be smooth as there is no need for protection from browsing animals above that height. Another alternative view is that only young leaves are smooth and develop spikes as they age, and pollarded hollies would provide smooth-leaved feed as holly was once cut as fodder for domestic animals in the past. An old Yorkshire Mummer’s song, Lyarde, contains the following lines,

Lyarde is ane olde horse, and  may noght wele drawe,

He salle be putt into the parke holyne for to gnawe.

Hollin is a common place-name in northern England, which may well reflect the practice of growing holly as winter fodder, (as well as its use as an excellent hedging plant). I’ve mentioned before the practice of slaughtering animals prior to winter but, obviously, they couldn’t all be killed as that would result in the lack of livestock in the following spring and so some had to be fed through the winter. The evergreen holly was the ideal solution and was used until improved agricultural techniques in the eighteenth century provided alternatives (root crops such as turnip, and better quality silage). 

Holly - Gerarde's Herbal - 1597

Old country lore says that if prickly holly is the first brought into the home then the husband will rule for the next year but if smooth holly is the first, then the wife will dominate the household throughout the year; for the maximum good luck, three types of holly should be used to decorate the home – prickly, smooth and variegated (which, in legend, is marked by drops of Mary’s milk, which spilled onto the holly boughs brought to the nativity by the shepherds). Holly berries contain the alkaloid theobromine, making them dangerously poisonous – if holly is used as a decoration, the berries must be out of the reach of children and pets. The wood of the holly is very white, almost like ivory, and extremely hard, it is easily dyed and when dyed black was used in the past as a substitute for ebony, used for such things as teapot knobs. 

Another tradition is that the Little People will seek to join in with the revels and that the holly gives them a place to hide unseen, whilst the holly prevents them from doing any harm. Holly and rowan branches were hung outside stable doors to prevent the nightmare from entering. The Gentleman’s Magazine of 1779 records that an observer saw a ‘sport’ at an unnamed ‘obscure’ village in Kent, where on a Shrove Tuesday the young girls aged between five to eighteen were burning a ‘Holly-Boy’, an effigy made from holly that the girls had stolen from the boys. Elsewhere in the village, the boys were burning the ‘Ivy-Girl’, which they had taken from the girls. Enquires revealed that this custom had taken place for as long as any villager could remember, but no one could explain the significance of this. 

Holly - J C Loudon - Arboretum et Fruticetum Britannicum

Holly and the other evergreens should be removed from the house on Twelfth Night (January 6th), with the exception of mistletoe, which should remain in place until Candlemas (February 2nd). The mistletoe should be retained throughout the year as it will protect the house from fire and lightning strike, and the other evergreens should be carefully disposed of, with due respect, either by burning or by being fed to the livestock, with attention paid to remove every single leaf and berry, as a goblin will come for each that is left behind. Robert Herrick refers to this in this poem,

“DOWN with the Rosemary, and so

Down with the Baies & misletoe:

Down with the Holly, Ivie, all,

Wherewith ye drest the Christmas Hall:

That so the superstitious find

No one least Branch there left behind:

For look, how any leaves there be

Neglected there (maids trust to me)

So many Goblins you shall see.”

No comments:

Post a Comment