The holly and the ivy

The holly and the ivy

A history of festive foliage

Yes, it looks pretty – but there’s more to that mistletoe hanging over the doorway at Christmas. In December in the western world we’re used to seeing festive garlands of holly, ivy, laurel and the like proudly displayed everywhere from the home to the local pub… but why?

Plants have always been a big part of celebrations across the globe: greenery (usually evergreen foliage) has been used by pagans since pre-Christian times to celebrate the Winter Solstice Festival, also known as Yule. These kinds of plants have historically been perceived to benefit fertility, ward off evil spirits and bring good fortune.

With the spread of Christianity across the west, certain traditions remained a part of Christmas celebrations, but the symbology was changed to fit in with Christian ideas. What does our favourite festive foliage represent nowadays?

Fir trees (Abies)

What’s Christmas without a fir tree (real or synthetic) decked with sparkling tinsel, twinkling fairy lights and dangling decorations? The evergreen fir has been used in winter celebrations for thousands of years, but the honour of erecting the first fir ‘Christmas tree’ is a title that’s still tussled over by the cities of Tallinn, Estonia (who claim 1441) and Latvia’s Riga (1510). Romans and pagans both used sprigs of fir in temples and homes too, and Christians in modern times revere the tree as a symbol of God’s everlasting life.

Eastern mistletoe (Phoradendrum leucarpum)

Mistletoe has been associated with fertility and vitality since the Viking Age all through the Middle Ages, where ‘kissing boughs’ of branches and fruit would be hung in homes as a reminder of God’s blessings. The first instances of smooching under the mistletoe are credited to the ‘serving classes’ of 18th century England – this cheeky tradition had it that a man was allowed to kiss any woman standing beneath the mistletoe, and it was bad luck for the woman to refuse! Yikes!

Laurel (Laurus nobilis)

Wreaths of laurel have been used since ancient Greek times to decorate victorious athletes, and are still symbolic of success – Italian students in recent times will often wear a laurel wreath at their graduation instead of a mortar board hat. Wreaths of laurel are used to decorate front doors around Christmas, representing the victory of God over the devil.

A sprig of holly leaves and berries

Flickr: liz west

Holly (Ilex)

Deck the halls with boughs of holly, fa la la la la… holly is probably the Christmas plant, but the symbolism behind it is a little bit gruesome. The vicious thorns on holly’s glossy leaves represent the crown of thorns that Jesus is said to have worn to his crucifixion, whilst the vibrant red berries represent his blood. In Scandinavia, holly is known as the Christ Thorn.

Ivy (Hedera)

Ivy’s climbing, clinging nature made it an excellent Christian metaphor for the eternal support of God – with the idea that humans might need some kind of divine trellising! The holly and the ivy is another very popular traditional festive song, and the two plants have historically been thought of as a pair. In fact, a tradition still stands in some areas of England that says holly is a male plant, and ivy female – whichever type of plant is the first to enter a home on Christmas Eve dictates whether males or females will rule the roost in the year to come! Get ready for some tussling at the doorway this December 24th…

As with any festive decorations, all your greenery should be removed from the house before Twelfth Night (5th January) to avoid bad luck in the coming year!

I’ve found it really interesting to look a little bit deeper into some of our Christmas traditions, and I hope you’ve learned something new. That’s all from me for this year – a very merry Christmas to you all, and a happy new year!