You may not have been aware of it, but a few months ago, a mighty battle took place. It has been happening every year since time began. And though you didn’t know it, you will have felt the consequences; how slowly, slyly, the shadow of night encroached upon the day and stole its light; how the sun hurried across the sky as if it couldn’t bear to look; how Summer’s warmth faded from the air, sucking with it all life from the earth, and all that was green and vibrant with health shrivelled and died. Trees shook off their leaves, praying with bone-like arms to the heavens for redemption. Birds flew far away, taking with them their joyous songs which made the heart glad just to hear them. Animals dug holes deep in the ground where the elements and hungry predators couldn’t reach them, and hibernated. It was as if everything that was good in the world withdrew, leaving behind only grey skies and hardship, and an uncertain future.
The Oak King had fought his battle, and lost. Holly, the victorious conqueror, stalked the land while the days stumbled toward their darkest hour. And yet, in the gloom and frost of the bitterest winter, he thrived where no other could. He was a sign, not that all was lost, but that where there was life there was hope, that with determination, one could prevail.
To our ancient ancestors, Holly was seen as a powerful symbol of hope and protection, perhaps even of their very survival; it was a plant sacred to the druids, with many magical and medicinal properties. On the Celtic Tree Calender, Holly represents the 8th month, and also is symbolised by the 8th letter in the Ogham Alphabet known as Tinne, meaning ‘fire’.
Traditionally, it was believed that the King of the Oaks (Summer) fought against the Holly King (Winter) at the Summer solstice, and lost. The Holly King then reigned until the Winter Solstice, when the pair would do battle again, with the Oak King regaining his rule.
The Holly King was portrayed as a powerful giant, much like the picture, composed of holly branches and leaves, wielding a holly bush as a club.
In Ireland, the Ilex Aquifolium, or Common Holly, is a native shrub, slow growing, typically reaching only 1 or 2 metres in height, but which, when left to itself, can grow up to 15m tall. In Irish it is known as Cuileann. Its wood is very hard and white, and used to make white chess pieces. It also makes excellent firewood, as it burns so fiercely, and was loved by metalworkers of old to feed their forges. It has lovely dark green glossy leaves edged with a number of spines, and the female produces bright red berries.
Despite being so attractive, both leaves and berries are toxic to most animals and humans. Eating as few as twenty berries would be enough to kill a child. However, holly was used medicinally to treat conditions such as gout, urinary problems, bronchitis, rheumatism and arthritis. Newborn babies were bathed in an infusion made from holly leaves to protect them and bring them good luck.
Around Europe, Holly trees were thought to protect against lightning strikes, and so were often planted around dwellings , thus they came to be associated with thunder Gods such as Thor and Taranis. In Ireland, it was associated with Lugh, God of Lightning. It is now thought that the spines on holly leaves act as ‘mini conductors’ which would explain this belief, although I could not find any evidence or a source to back this up. Other magical powers include protection, bringing good luck, and the enhancement of dreams.
Cutting down a whole tree was forbidden, but using branches to decorate one’s home was thought to bring good luck and protection down upon the inhabitants. I’m sure the presence of bright glossy greenery and bright red berries must have been cheering to have about in itself.
As this pagan practice occurred in mid-winter, it coincided perfectly with the new religion of Christianity and their Christmas celebrations, which is why we now associate Christmas with holly wreaths. Whilst newly elected pagan chieftains wore a wreath of holly to bring them good fortune in their new role, the Christians associated it with the crown of thorns worn by Jesus, and the red berries with his blood shed at the crucifixion.
Holly features in several tales of Irish mythology. In The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Grainne, the couple’s servant, Muadhan, uses holly berries as bait on a hook to catch salmon for their evening meal. In another Fenian tale, The Cave of Keiscoran, the three daughters of Conaran spin enchanted yarn on sticks of holly to weave their magic and trap the warriors of the Fianna.
In Lady Gregory’s version of The Cattle Raid of Cooley, the warrior Natchrantal is sent up against Cuchulain bearing ‘no arms with him but three times nine holly rods, and they having hardened points’. Not that they did him much good; Cuchulain cut his head off with his sword, and that was the end of him!