By Claire Smith
Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly… But not until Christmas Eve, otherwise you’ll have bad luck! Once your holly (Ilex aquifolium) and other festive evergreens are in place, it is also unlucky to either remove them before, or leave them up after, Twelfth Night. When you do take down your decorations it’s very important to be as careful as possible, lest you be infested not with cheery little Christmas elves, but terrifying goblins. The number that you see is determined by how many leaves you allow to fall to the ground.
Robert Herrick (of “gather ye rosebuds while ye may” fame) wrote this festive poem about the customs in his Devon village:
Down with the rosemary and so
with the baies and mistletoe,
Down with the holly, ivie, all
Wherewith you drest the Christmas hall.
That so the superstitious find
Not one least branch there left behind,
For look, how many leaves there be,
Neglected there, maids trust to me,
So many goblins you shall see.
If you had over-indulged yourself at Christmas dinner in 1653 (which you shouldn’t have done, as Christmas was cancelled between 1647 and 1660), then you might have turned to Nicholas Culpeper’s Complete Herbal, which recommended Holly as a remedy for your stomach ache:
“The berries expel wind, and therefore are held to be profitable in the cholic. The berries have a strong faculty with them; for if you eat a dozen of them in the morning fasting when they are ripe and not dried, they purge the body of gross and clammy phlegm: but if you dry them into powder, they bind the body…”.
There were many other medicinal remedies ascribed to holly. Drinking fresh milk from a cup carved from variegated holly wood was considered an effective cure for whooping cough, and chilblains could supposedly be improved by thrashing your feet with the leaves. According to Margaret Baker, “An unpleasant English recipe for the treatment of worms advised the patient to yawn over a dish of sage and holly leaves in water, whereupon the worms would drop out of his mouth.”
Note: please do not try any of these remedies at home! Holly berries contain saponins that act as an emetic, which means they’ll make you sick. (This is what Culpeper means by purging the body.) Modern advice for the treatment of chilblains advises not doing anything that might scratch or break the skin, so no flagellating your feet with holly please!
With the exception of the period between Christmas Eve and Twelfth Night, it has long been considered extremely bad luck to cut down a holly tree. For this reason they were often seen standing proud of other species in the hedgerows, with the added benefit that their tall and prickly presence prevents ill-intentioned witches from running along the tops of the hedges.
Culpeper also reports that, “Pliny saith, the branches of the tree defend houses from lightning, and men from witchcraft”. This is a common idea that seems to have been repeated in slightly varying forms for centuries. As well as witchcraft and lightning, planting a holly tree outside your house will apparently protect you from thunderstorms, fire, sorcery, and the evil eye. These benefits are enhanced if the tree is a self-seeded volunteer rather than one that you’ve planted yourself, and holly picked on Christmas Day is particularly powerful.
What Pliny actually says is “aquifolia arbor in domo aut villa sata veneficia arcet”, which translates literally as “a holly tree by your town house or country house protects against poisoning”. In the 1938 edition W.H.S. Jones translates this as “magic influences”, and I would be very interested to find out at what point “poisoning” becomes “magic” and “witchcraft”. Further investigation is needed — and of course I may be wrong about the Latin, as it’s not my area of expertise!
If you want to create your own magic with holly, you need to gather nine leaves of “she-holly” and tie them with nine knots into a three-cornered handkerchief. It’s very important to do this in silence, at midnight, on a Friday. If you maintain the silence until the following morning, the person you desire will appear to you in your dreams. “She-holly” is described as being without spines which symbolises the feminine, in contrast with the masculine symbol of the prickly he-holly leaves.
Despite the fact that only female holly bears the berries, it has long been considered a male symbol and, as such, it was important that holly was brought indoors only by a man. Being an indicator of fertility (not to mention another repeller of witches), the rich red berries were vital. Berryless holly was considered incredibly unlucky to bring indoors – to the extent that if it was a poor winter for berries, it was permissible to redden ivy berries with sheep raddle (dye used for marking sheep), and add these artificial clusters to the wreath. To maintain domestic harmony, an equal quantity of both smooth and prickly holly could be used to decorate the home.
Holly magic also worked on animals. A stick of holly brought back wandering cattle, a holly collar protected your horse from witchcraft, and holly leaves in your seed drill would keep away mice. Cows would thrive if a sprig of holly was pinned up in the cowshed – particularly if it had previously been used to decorate a church. As a symbol of Christianity (the prickly leaves representing Christ’s crown of thorns, and the berries his blood), it was thought that animals revered the holly and would never damage a tree by eating it. In fact, sheep can eat holly, if the branches are cut and left out in the field for a week or two. Holly being fed to cattle was a widespread practice until the eighteenth century, although we now know that it contains cyanogenic glycosides and alkaloids which are poisonous to horses and livestock.
One practical use of holly that persisted into the twentieth century was in the making of “bird-lime”. This sticky substance was originally used for the trapping of small birds. It was cooked up by extracting the juice of the boiled bark and mixing it with nut oil. Perhaps its most surprising use was during the Second World War, when it was used as an adhesive during the development of the “Grenade, Hand, Anti-Tank No. 74”, or “sticky bomb”. An alternative sticky substance was quickly developed by Kay Brothers Ltd in Stockport, but without the inspiration of the holly infused bird-lime, the British Army could well have taken much longer to come up with a solution to the shortage of anti-tank weaponry which they faced following the 1940 evacuation of Dunkirk.
Baker, Margaret, Discovering Christmas Customs and Folklore, Princes Risborough, Shire Publications, 1992
Baker, Margaret, Discovering Christmas Customs and Folklore, Aylesbury, Shire Publications, 1972
Baker, Margaret, Discovering the Folklore of Plants, Aylesbury, Shire Publications, 1980
Culpeper, Nicholas, The Complete Herbal and English Physician Enlarged, London, Richard Evans, 1814 edition https://archive.org/details/cu31924001353279/page/n113
Kightly, Charles, The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore, London, Thames & Hudson, 1987
McNeill, Murdoch, Colonsay, one of the Hebrides, its plants: their local names and usses–legends, ruins, and place-names–Gaelic names of birds, fishes, etc.–climate, geological formation, etc, Edinburgh, David Douglas, 1910 https://archive.org/details/colonsayoneofheb00mcneiala/page/110
Vickery, Roy, Vickery’s Folk Flora: an A-Z of the Folklore and Uses of British and Irish Plants, London, Weidenfield & Nicholson, 2019
WW2 People’s War: An archive of World War Two memories – written by the public, gathered by the BBC (page archived from October 2014) Sticky bombs, manufactured by Kay Brothers, Stockport by Stockport Libraries https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/12/a2159912.shtml
Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Volume 6, Book 24, para 72 1938 edition, English translation by W.H.S. Jones https://www-loebclassics-com.idpproxy.reading.ac.uk/view/pliny_elder-natural_history/1938/pb_LCL393.85.xml?rskey=UodQOI&result=1
Hosking, Rebecca & Tim Green, Holly – Returning To An Ancient Tradition On The Farm, Permaculture, Sunday, 3rd April 2011