How easy it is to forget the raw hands and wet socks of a snowball fight – to neglect to remind oneself that lying down with sunburnt shoulders is, to say the least, uncomfortable – and how the joy of collecting holly to decorate the house for Christmas is tempered by punctured palms, wrists and fingers. Those spines are forgotten when the pleasing spray is seen as a symbol of this time of wonder.
The evergreen holly tree will grow up to seventy feet in height and its leaves, which are very tough, are usually green. We have a variegated green and yellow holly in a corner of our northern garden. It provides shelter for small creatures and our regular robin spends a good deal of time rummaging underneath it. Blackbirds, too, like to turn over the leaf litter on the earth below and, earlier in the autumn, we even saw a redstart emerge from the holly corner.
Hollies are a part of everyone’s history. If each of us associates holly with Christmas, then we must all have made the association from at least one experience. One Christmas memory I have is of my father bringing in bunches of berried holly which had been given to him by people he came across in his work as a Farm Produce Merchant. (Incidentally, it was the man of the house who traditionally took in the boughs of holly.) This was in the days when Christmas gifts – cigars, boxed biscuits, bottles of port, sherry and whisky were offered as tokens of good will in business. Now they would be considered to be bribes – backhanders. A prickly subject.
The holly tree is a native of Britain except for Orkney, Shetland and Caithness. It often grows underneath beech and oak in woodlands. Holly makes good shelter and grows well in hedges giving those lovely bright berries at the end of the year.
The older trees are not so pretty in shape as the younger ones which look like little chapels. The red berries will stay on the tree through a mild winter and into the next summer but if February should have a very cold snap, then the fieldfares, or felfers as we called them in the Isle of Axholme, will raid the tree and leave it bereft of its fruit.
At “Hope Cottage” we had some small bushes of different types of holly – I made sure we always kept a holly living in our garden as our eldest daughter is Holly Rose Elizabeth – but one bush which gave me cause for concern was a holly which had no spines and which I planted in our little area of woodland at the bottom of the garden – where the fairies are. It seemed to do well at first, my hopes were raised and I was sure that the other trees would draw it up at just the right pace. However, my aim to let the woodland area play host to wildflowers and brambles did the spineless holly a great deal of harm. It didn’t make any effort to fight back and the rascals of the understorey seemed to be winning when we left there three years ago. I am determined that, wherever I am, there will always be a holly so I watch our variegated bush closely to ensure no harm comes to it. A little cutting-back in our first year here seems to have encouraged growth in all the right places.
Mistletoe and holly are THE Christmas berries and, whereas mistletoe generally grows high above the ground and is difficult to get at, holly, which is not so popular with birds, apart, perhaps, from the feral felfers of February, has branches which are easier to reach. Don’t feel too bad about taking some inside – the birds won’t mind if you share them – the holly berries are not their favourite snack anyway – and you could always remedy any deficiency by putting out rich food scraps from the ample Christmas table. Cutting holly was very controlled in the past. One was only supposed to cut it at Christmas, never taking it indoors before Christmas Eve. It was meant to remain there until Twelfth Night and, by Candlemas at the very latest, every leaf must be removed or the household would host as many goblins as holly leaves remained.
Holly has been connected with magic for a very long time. Pliny wrote that holly trees about the house prevented sorcery. After the Battle of Dunbar in 1650, Scottish prisoners were taken to the fens to work on drainage schemes. Many of them worried that the cottages in which they stayed were unprotected from witchcraft so they planted holly trees there. Yet holly is not absent from Christian festivities. It was moved deftly across from ancient pagan rites to sit comfortably alongside mistletoe, laurel and rosemary, symbolising, because of its evergreen nature, eternal life.
Hollies can be seen just about anywhere as, should birds be hungry enough to eat them, they will pass through the gut and germinate in surprising places. It is not only at Christmastide that the holly is of great significance in our countryside. June is an important month for the holly as that is when the dear little holly blue butterfly tanks up on holly and on ivy as a very hungry caterpillar. It is an interesting wee thing as it has a seven to nine year population cycle and can sometimes fool us into thinking there has been substantial decline.
When our Holly was a little girl and my Grandma Ivy was still living, I always fancied I would have a Christmas card designed with the two of them together and, inside, I would write:
“The rising of the sun
And the running of the deer,
The playing of the merry organ,
Sweet singing in the choir.”
But I hadn’t reckoned with mortality. Time ran out.
The popular carol lists the characteristics of holly which make it so recognisable to us – the lily-white blossom, the blood-red berry, the thorn-sharp prickle and the bark which is “as bitter as any gall”. In fact there is little or no evidence that holly was used in wood carvings in medieval churches – an interesting thought, as holly was certainly adopted by early Christians.
In the late nineteenth century “May Birching” became obsolete, and a good thing too. This was the custom of a group of villagers coming together and creeping quietly around their village early on May morning. They would leave a natural token at the door of those they imagined would benefit from their rhyming hints: thorn was for scorn, briar meant a liar, holly was for folly and there were quite a few others too. Going back even further, it was believed that holly, along with other plants which represented lightning patterns, sprang from the sacred fire of the sky god, Thor.
It would be useless to deny the symbolic significance of holly – whether it be pagan, Christian or other. Like all natural allies, it has different associations for each of us. However, it is a stalwart tree in our islands. Belief had it that holly was assertive and masculine and that ivy was acquiescent and connected with femininity. Early peoples saw physical characteristics very much intertwined with the psyche – the inner man was linked with the physical world, totally and inextricably. An excellent reason to sense all things with positivity and rationality. So it is then that snowball fights are great fun – but also cold and wet; that taking in the sunshine is restful – but over-indulgence is damaging; and that the house at Christmas is improved with the addition of holly – but heavy-duty gardening gloves are a must.