Why holly symbolizes Christmas

It is onsidered magical since before the advent of Christian Christmas

by Lorenzo Ciotti
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Why holly symbolizes Christmas
© Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 de Wikimedia Commons

Holly is a plant considered magical since before the advent of Christian Christmas. It is said to protect against demons and bring good luck. Its first uses date back to Ireland where even the poorest families could afford to use it to decorate their homes.

Pagans, primarily the Germanic tradition of the Yule festival, celebrated the rebirth of the sun at the winter solstice. The renewed rise of the sun in the sky that began at the solstice was symbolically staged as a battle between the summer oak and, indeed, the winter holly.

The red berries of the holly represented fertility during the deep darkness of winter, a promise of the return of light and warmth. Subsequently, the Christians, in an attempt to supplant the pagan holidays by superimposing new meanings on them, placed Christmas on December 25th, simply superimposing the previous ancient tradition.

Since many symbols of the previous tradition, such as the holly, persisted to attempted Christian erasure, the new religion sought to redefine their original meaning over time. According to the new Christian tradition, the structure of the leaf would in fact recall the crown of thorns of Jesus Christ and the red fruits his blood.

Furthermore, the white buds would be an image of the purity of the Madonna. Among Christian traditions it is said that holly berries derived from the coagulated blood of a shepherd who, while bringing gifts to Jesus, had injured himself with the pungent leaves of the plant.

But what kind of plant is agrifolium?

It is a dioecious evergreen shrub up to 10 m tall, with pyramidal foliage, smooth gray bark and greenish branches. The leaves live for an entire year and do not all renew at the same time.

The leaves are shiny dark green, decorative, with variegated varieties of white, cream or yellow. The orange/reddish fruits offer a decorative contrast with the color of the leaves, which are alternate or sparse, oval or elliptical, leathery, with a spiny margin in the lower branches of young plants, entire in adult plants.

The flowers are small and gathered in axillary bundles, with 4 white or pink petals. The male ones have 4 stamens, the female ones a pistil with an upper ovary surmounted by 4 stigmas.