At the weekend I collected holly sprigs for decoration and the little displays made me happy. I adore holly - not just its shiny, deep green, spiky leaves and red, red berries (which are beautiful), but it impresses more deeply. Of course it is inextricably linked with Christmas festivities and celebrations.
For the Pagans holly represented the spirit of vegetation and the waning forces of nature, and the male counterpart to the female ivy - it has become part of customs and superstitions the world over, not only for winter solstace celebrations.
It is a remarkable tree, the close-grained white wood is used for making tool handles and the holly's male and female flowers are found on separate trees, and the berries exclusively on the female tree.
In Roman times sweets were hung from twigs of holly and given as gifts - although to cut down a holly was very unlucky, and also to cut a branch which instead should be pulled off.
Holly carved in Yorkstone
The red berries have long been believed to ward off evil spirits and demons and holly trees and hedges were planted round houses for protection. The holly is also thought to protect from lightening strikes. Pythagoras mentions the power of holly in that the flowers could solidify water and describes the strange controlling properties of holly to draw people to it, bound to touch it and then are made weak. Pliny writes that an animal hit with a holly stick will be subdued and compelled to obey the wielder of the stick - horses are particularly affected.
In the North of England it was believed that if nine leaves of smooth-leaved holly were placed under the pillow, it would result in prophetic dreams! This I am going to try - I'll let you know the results.