One of the nicest things about Christmas is the whole process of festooning the house with winter greenery. Apart from the tree, whose scent is aromatically redolent of Christmas, there’s mistletoe (if you’re lucky enough to find any ), the darkly gleaming leaves of the ivy, and the holly’s bright, jewel-like berries. Whether you’re artistic and nimble-fingered enough to wind holly and ivy into garlands and wreaths, or whether, like me, your usual approach is to balance holly twigs precariously on top of picture frames and door lintels, these plants can really add to the festive feel of a room.
There’s really nothing more normal than wanting to brighten your home in the dark days of winter with a little spirit-lifting natural foliage, but the history and folklore of the holly and the ivy indicate that both plants have a firm place in our collective unconscious.
In past times, any evergreen plant was seen as a symbol of endurance and renewal, a kind of assurance that life would return at the end of winter, and our habit of bringing evergreens into the house is surely a reflection of this belief. Ivy has often been seen as a feminine plant and holly as a masculine one, and bringing them together into the house will ensure peace and harmony – particularly useful if the strains of Christmases tend to lead to a degree of domestic tension.
We’ve always had slightly mixed feelings about ivy. Its habit of clinging to walls and trees gives rise to an assumption that it is inherently damaging. While this isn’t strictly true – ivy is not parasitic on other plants, and it clings on with adhesive suckers rather than boring into mortar or bark – if it grows particularly enthusiastically it can pose a risk to trees that are already weakened by age or disease by making them so top-heavy that a strong gust of wind can bring down the whole shebang. But ivy is a great food plant for bees, particularly in autumn, when there isn’t much else around to provide nectar, and traditionally ivy had a number of therapeutic uses, including curing hangovers, corns, burns, coughs and a number of other unpleasant ailments.
The holly bears the crown
For years I held stubbornly to the belief that a holly tree covered in berries meant a hard winter was to come, but rather disappointingly there’s no scientific truth in this idea – a bumper crop of any kind of berries in autumn or winter has more to do with what the weather was like the previous spring and summer. In my own area there are miserably few holly berries around this year – or perhaps the birds (or holly-sellers ) have already got to them all.
Strangely, given that holly wood burns exceptionally quickly and brightly, it was seen in the past as a protector against fire. It could also protect a house from lightning, and for that reason was often planted around a new house.
It also has a strong connection with horses, and was hung up in stables to protect the animals from disease. Its power over horses is illustrated by the Welsh myth of Elffin, who challenges his rivals to a horse race. Elffin is convinced that his horse will win, but as an insurance policy he takes nine twigs of holly with him to the race. As he catches up with each of his rivals’ horses, he throws a twig of holly at it, which immediately makes the horse weaken and drop back. Elffin, of course, wins the race easily.
So drape the ivy, bring in the holly, hang up the mistletoe, and have a wild Christmas and a wonderful New Year!