Holly, ivy connect us with history

A sense of herbs

A sense of herbs

December 16, 2002|by Dorry Baird Norris

"The holly and the ivy,

When they are both full grown,

Of all the trees are in the wood.

The holly wears the crown."

- Traditional Carol

Holly has long been a symbol of the masculine and ivy the feminine. In hymn and practice they are inextricably linked for the winter holidays. Many carols debate which plant will take precedence, which will rule the household. Of course, it is ironic that a tree that can be either male or female, with the female of the species producing the valued berries, has the reputation for masculinity.

Evergreen holly, emblem of domestic happiness, goodwill and foresight, made its way slowly from pagan ritual to Christian tradition as a reminder that there is life beyond death.


The Roman feast of Saturnalia (Dec. 17 to 23) paid homage to Saturn, god of agriculture. These fertility revels were thought to assure the protection of winter-sown crops. Holly was one of the greens used to decorate houses during this festive period. Further north it was venerated by the Druids; it was regarded as a plant of the life-giving sun.

Despite the fact that at one time holly was banned by the church as a pagan symbol, it soon achieved a Christian veneer. The red berries of the holly were reminders of the blood shed by the crucified Christ. The barbed leaf, its "prickle as sharp as any thorn," was symbolic of the crown of thorns. Folklore has it that once the holly was a mighty tree but after the use of its wood to make the cross of the crucifixion, it was demoted to the status of a shrub.

In England, the halls were not only decked with holly but it was also placed in windows as a protection against pagans and witches. Holly was hung in the house on Christmas to bring good luck. Tradition says if it comes into the home before that, it will lead to quarrels. Further, to avoid misfortune, remove by Twelfth Night.

Twining ivy, symbolizing constancy, trustfulness, ambition and tenacity, took longer to achieve acceptance for the Christmas season inside churches. Esteemed among the ancients, ivy (Hedira helix) - dedicated to Dionysos - was said to prevent drunkenness.

Dionysos was the Greek god of vegetation who presided over fruits, trees and vines. Ancient Greek priests presented newlyweds with wreaths of ivy. Romans fashioned ivy leaves into the poet's crown as well as that of the reveling Bacchus, lord of the vine. Its reputation for curing hangovers surely comes from this association with debauched Bacchus.

It was believed that wherever ivy was strewn or grown it guarded against negativity and disaster. Once esteemed for its medicinal qualities, ivy now finds favor only as a ground and wall cover, in bridal wreaths and for Christmas decorations.

Join the ancients, decorate your holiday table with a wreath of holly and ivy. Before you start, heed the suggestion of Don Haynie of Buffalo Herb Farm. As soon as you get them, cut them, place them into a large plastic bag, mist with warm water then close the bag and allow to rest for 24 hours. Poke the cuttings into a well soaked ring of Oasis. For added interest, tuck in fir branches or other evergreens and bits of rosemary. Ribbons and bows are optional. Place your wreath on a decorative plate or tray for an elegant and long-lasting centerpiece.

This traditional evergreen wreath brings to life the old Christmas carol that reminds us :

"With holly and ivy

So green and so gay;

We deck up our houses

As fresh as the day."

Herbarist, lecturer and Hagerstown resident Dorry Baird Norris is a member of the International Herb Association, a member-at-large of the Herb Society of America and author of "The Sage Cottage Herb Garden Cookbook." She welcomes questions about the non-medical use of herbs. E-mail her at or write in care of The Herald-Mail Co., P.O. Box 439, Hagerstown, Md. 21741.

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