‘The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown.’
– Traditional carol, words from Sharp’s English Folk-Carols (1911)
Today’s image: holly and ivy
The symbolism of these plants is evident in their generic name: evergreens of any sort are symbols of hope and spring returning.
Ancient Romans used holly for decoration at their Saturnalia festival in December. The Druids, from whom we get many seasonal traditions in Britain, is considered it a symbol of fertility and eternal life, thought to have magical powers as a charm against witches. Sprigs of holly would have been worn at festivals. Though why ‘male’ fertility, I wonder? Only the female plants bear berries – though they need a planted male nearby, so presumably that appeals to the Medieval mindset. The Ancient Celts, too considered holly imbued with powerful magic. They spoke of an annual battle for dominance between the Oak King and the Holly King, with the Holly King triumphant, to reign the winter through.
As we know, today, Christians have adopted the holly tree as a symbol for Christmas. This is a synergetic piece of symbolism: the pointed leaves are said to denote the crown of thorns worn by Christ, and berries to represent his blood. The holly ‘bears the crown’ indeed.
In terms of ivy, this was a customary wintertime decoration in Pagan cultures, used to build wreaths and garlands, presumably thanks to its flexible vines.
Awareness of these traditions matters. Yes, the history helps us to understand why our society, why we, in a sense, came to be as we are today. However, it’s also about connection, and about cultural identity. When I make, decorate, cook, celebrate in time-honoured ways, I strengthen a bond with the past.
At the same time, we are passing on to our children the customs developed in our own families, and creating some of our own, too. My daughter in particular is keen to maintain the routines she has known all her life. Some of these are specific to our family–Christmas Eve celebrations, menus, particular baubles on the tree, the timing of opening the stockings, even the old cloth advent calendar we’ve had since before she was born (and now a bit tatty) must be hung up, promptly, by 1st December.
So engaging in rituals also helps to give us a sense of control and continuity. It’s not surprising, then, that so many people have been quick to put up their decorations this year, a time in which we have experienced a loss of control over our lives – necessary measures, perhaps, but tough and disempowering, nonetheless.
What festival rituals do you treasure, whether Christmas or a different celebration?
What rituals have you created in your family that have become sacrosanct?