Saturday, December 11, 2021

Boughs of Holly 


Deck the Halls 

    Deck the halls (with boughs of holly). It’s a fun-to-sing Christmas song (with its fa-la-la refrain) and perhaps one of the most widely recognized and most-often caroled.

    First published in 1881, the song is generally believed to be American in origin, although the author remains unknown. The music, however, (or should I say the tune) dates back to 16th Century Wales and a song titled Nos Galan, which means New Year’s Eve. Some people associate the music for Nos Galan with a duet for violin and piano by Mozart, and / or a piece written for voice and piano with violin and cello composed by Haydn.

    Interestingly, an early calendar in the Church of Rome described Christmas Eve as templa exornantur; churches are decked.

The Holly and the Ivy 

    In England, holly was often used to symbolize men or masculinity. Ivy represented women or femininity. A somewhat less-recognized Christmas carol (and one that I prefer) is The Holly and the Ivy, in which the holly characterizes Jesus and the ivy, Mary. The song contains the lyrics:

The holly and the ivy
When they are both full grown
Of all the trees that are in the wood
The holly bears the crown

    The crown is a reference to the widely held belief that it was holly twigs which were woven into the tormenting, braided crown of thorns that the Roman soldiers placed upon Jesus’ head, at the time of his crucifixion. In Europe, Holly came to be known as ‘Christ Thorn.’ In German, it’s still called Christdorn. And some believe that the wood of the holly tree was fashioned into the cross upon which Jesus was crucified.

    Many legends are associated with holly. Among them is a belief that the holly’s berries were once white in color, but they grew red in memory of Jesus and the blood shed on the cross.

The holly bears a berry
As red as any blood

And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To do poor sinners good


English or common holly (Ilex aquifolium ‘Pendula’)
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Great Britain

Forbidden Fruit 

    While some scholars believe that the name holly was derived from the word holy, by many accounts, early Christians were forbidden to use holly for decoration, evidently because of a lingering superstition that elves and fairies used sprigs of holly as hiding places within the home; a belief that has an association with Saturnalia, the pagan feast of Saturn (the Roman god of the harvest) and a celebration of the winter solstice. Saturnalia was a time of widespread, customary debauchery (rowdy behavior, public drinking, dancing naked, gluttony) and begging, interestingly enough, by going door to door and singing (caroling) in exchange for food, drink, and gifts. Saturnalia was also a time for exchanging gifts and decorating trees.

    In fact, because of such strong ties to paganism, the Puritan settlers actually rebuked Christmas. On May 11, 1659, the Massachusetts Bay Colony legislature officially decreed that anyone caught “still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other countries, to the great dishonor of God and offense of others” be fined; proclaiming “whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by for-bearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid… shall pay for every such offense five shillings, as a fine to the county.” The ban remained in place for 22 years.

common holly

English or common holly (Ilex aquifolium)
CalPhotos; University of California, Berkeley

English or Common Holly 

    English or common holly, Ilex aquifolium, the species of holly we associate with Christmas decoration, is native to western and southern Europe, northwest Africa, and southwest Asia. It’s an adaptable evergreen; a pioneer tree and shrub species often found on the boundaries of forested land. It’s a broadleaf evergreen that’s grown ornamentally worldwide, including in the United States and Canada, and which typically does not grow well in high-light and low-temperature conditions. Ilex aquifolium has escaped cultivation and invaded moist forested areas along the west coast from California to British Columbia, and Alaska. It’s considered naturalized in Hawaii, as well.

American Holly  

    One of its closest relatives, American Holly (Ilex opaca), is a North American native plant that ranges from Texas to Florida to southern New England, growing naturally in a wide range of soils and, when conditions are right, achieving heights of 30 to 50 feet with an overall pyramidal form. There are more than 1,000 named cultivars of American holly.


    Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is a deciduous type of holly, native to much of eastern North America. It grows in this region and is remarkably disease-resistant; prone only to occasional leaf spots or powdery mildew.

    While winterberry flowers are small and not particularly showy, they are commonly visited by honeybees and other pollinators. If properly pollinated, its berries hang on persistently throughout the winter, long after it loses its leaves in the fall, providing a welcome splash of color in otherwise bleak panoramas. A few twigs heavily laden with berries can be an eye-catching enhancement in dried floral arrangements, as well.

    A word of caution, however. While many types of songbirds, gamebirds, and mammals eat the berries of this and other hollies, the fruits are considered poisonous to humans, sometimes causing stomach discomfort even when only a few berries are eaten. Other symptoms may include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and drowsiness.

    Like all hollies, Ilex verticillata is dioecious, meaning that there are both male and female plants

Photo at top: American holly (Ilex opaca) by John Ruter: University of Georgia (

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Richard Gast is a retired Extension Program Educator and has been contracted by Cornell Cooperative Extension Franklin County to continue his informative and thought provoking articles.

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One Response

  1. Boreas says:

    Thanks Richard – another interesting article.

    Despite their thick, waxy leaves, deer consider hollies a favorite on my property. Berries are a rarity because of constant browse damage. But I admire healthy specimens when I see them.

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