Holly is a common adornment in holiday arrangements and home decorations. Despite the association with Christmas, holly did not get its name from “holy”. It is translated in Old English as holegn, or Old Norse as Holfr, or perhaps German as hulst, French as houx or Welsh as celyn. It
actually probably goes back to the ancient root word, gel, which means “prickly” or “to prick”.
The tradition of using holly goes way back in history also. Holly was considered a sacred plant by the Druids. Boughs of holly were believed to have magical powers because they remained green, even in the harshest of winters. In Druid lore, cutting down a holly tree would bring bad luck but hanging it over the doors and windows of homes would drive evil spirits away.
The Romans had holly wreaths that were carried in processions and decorated images of Saturn to honor their god of agriculture during their Saturnalia festival held during the winter solstice.
Centuries later, while the Romans continued their pagan ceremonies, many Christians continued to deck their homes with holly to avoid detection and persecution. As with many ancient traditions, Christians have adopted the “holy bough” and embraced it as a symbol of Christianity.
The English also had traditions of “he holly” and “she holly”. If the “she holly”, those with a smooth edge, was brought into the home first, the female would rule the household for the year. The “he holly”, having the prickly edges, had the opposite results. Perhaps this is why the lady of the house usually did the holiday decorating.
Most holly are evergreens that can thrive in most any climate. The waxy, serrated leaves are dioecious, with male and female reproductive structures found on separate plants. Both plants bloom in May or June but only the females can produce berries. The berries are toxic to humans but not for other animals. Berries are a vital source of food for some species of birds.
Holly berries, which ripen in early winter typically have four seed each that are eaten and scattered for germination of new plants. The green leaves have been used in herbal remedies for centuries for such things as fever and hypertension, although there is little proof that there
is any medical benefit.