Christmas Garden legends and traditions

The Story Behind Christmas Holly

Common holly (Ilex aquifolium). Photo:

Common holly (llex aquifolium) has a long history of use as a Christmas symbol.

You most often see it on Christmas cards, with its shiny, spiny dark green foliage and bright red berries. Garden centers also carry potted hollies as gift plants, decorated with artificial wax fruits, plus sprigs of freshly-harvested berried holly at outrageous prices you can place on a table during an Xmas feast, attach to a ceiling or wall or weave into a garland or a Christmas wreath. (Plastic holly is even more widely available and much cheaper!)

Although slow-growing, holly will eventually become quite a tall tree. Photo:

I’m somewhat jealous of people who can just go out into their garden and harvest their own holly sprigs (mostly in USDA hardiness zones 7 to 9). Where I live, even the hardiest evergreen hollies, like those of the China and Blue series (I. x meservae), are low-growing shrubs already totally hidden by the snow at this season. Any branches that aren’t buried in white by now would have been killed back by the cold weeks ago (such is life in zone 3!).

But where does this tradition of holly as a Christmas plant come from?

Before the Christian Era

The tradition of decorating with holly towards the winter solstice is common to many peoples of central and northern Europe, notably the Celts. They saw in this tree, whose leaves remain green all winter and whose red fruits recall drops of blood, as a mysterious and powerful plant, one endowed with great healing potential. After all, its berries are poisonous and what is poison if not a hidden power? (Think like a druid before answering that one!) They even believed that holly trees repelled lightning!

The Holly King. ill.:

One Celtic legend tells of two opposing twin brothers, the Holly King and the Oak King. The Holly King was seen as a giant bearing a crown of holly and carrying a club made of holly wood. He gradually assumed power every fall, bringing winter to the world, then at the winter solstice, the two brothers would fight and the Oak King would inevitably kill his brother and take over ruling the world, thus bringing back summer. Their roles were then be reversed at each summer solstice, thus bringing about the seasons as we know them.

It was common for Celts to wear crowns of holly at the festivities of both solstices, although I would think they’d be rather itchy.

Today some authorities believe that the Holly King was a precursor of Santa Claus.

To profit from the power of holly, Celts would hang holly sprigs in their windows and over the door to keep witches and evil spirits away. Since it was well known that only good people could enter a house protected by holly, holly gradually became a symbol of hospitality and welcome.

Holly Under Christianity

With the arrival of Christianity, holly, with its pagan origins, was quickly banished from the new Church’s rites and rituals. Even so, it managed it work its way gradually back into Christmas legends over the time as the old pagan ways were forgotten.

The Holy Family fleeing to Egypt. Ill.: Vittore Carpaccio (1500), Wikimedia Commons.

One legend, for example, is based on the Massacre of the Innocents in the Gospel of Matthew, when King Herod, having been told the King of the Jews had been born in Bethlehem, set out to eliminate a possible usurper by killing all male children in the vicinity. To protect baby Jesus, Joseph and Mary fled with him to Egypt. And this is where the holly legend steps in. It’s said the young family saw Roman soldiers coming towards them, hid behind a holly tree and then the tree miraculously bent down its branches to conceal them. In thanks, Mary blessed the holly tree and ever since holly has remained green all year.

That’s not the best-known holly legend, though. The most common one concerns the crown of thorns. It claims that, before the arrival of Jesus, holly berries were always white. But then holly was used to make the crown of thorns put on Jesus’ head at the crucifixion and his blood colored the berries red, a color they keep to this day. That is why, this legend says, Christmas is celebrated by decorating the house with branches of holly.

Nice, but no dice… twice. Both legends lose all credibility when you realize there was no holly growing in Israel or indeed anywhere in the Middle East during the time of Jesus: it hails from the cooler, moister climate of central and western Europe.

Holly Today

There is an urban legend going around that claims holly got its name because it was a holy plant. Holly. Holy. That does seem to make sense… but tain’t true. The origin of the word holly is complicated, but essentially it derives from an Indo-European word meaning thorny plant, whereas holy is of germanic origin… and has pretty much always meant holy or healthy.

California holly (Heteromeles arbutifolia). Miguel Vieira, Wikimedia Commons

What is true is that the holly in Hollywood, the legendary abode of movie stars, does come from holly… more or less. You see, the hills above Los Angeles used to be covered in California holly (Heteromeles arbutifolia), also known as Christmas berry, a tall shrub or small tree so called because of its berries that are bright red, giving the forest (wood) a reddish haze, hence holly wood. California holly isn’t actually a close relative of true holly (Ilex) though and certainly doesn’t share its spiny leaves.

A crown of holly adds to the Yuletide atmosphere. Photo:

The tradition of decorating the house at Christmas with holly remains very popular to this day, especially where holly can be harvested locally and inexpensively. There are farms that produce holly as a commercial crop throughout Europe and here and there in the United States.

In several European countries, bringing holly indoors for the Christmas is still believed to ensure a year of good luck. That is, if you don’t bring it in too early. In certain regions of France, for example, it is common knowledge that misfortunate will strike if you bring holly indoors any earlier than December 24th.

So, go ahead and deck your halls with balls of holly… but no earlier than Christmas Eve!

Article originally published on December 25, 2016.

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

6 comments on “The Story Behind Christmas Holly

  1. Herman Crist

    The story behind Christmas holly dates back centuries, steeped in ancient traditions and folklore. Custom avatars play a symbolic role in this narrative. Legend has it that holly was once a druid’s favorite plant, believed to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck. Over time, holly became associated with Christmas, representing eternal life and the hope of new beginnings. The custom avatars, crafted with holly leaves and berries, adorned homes and churches during the festive season, symbolizing protection and joy. Today, the vibrant green leaves and red berries of holly continue to grace our homes, reminding us of the timeless spirit of Christmas.

  2. Alex Carey

    The Story Behind Christmas Holly is a captivating and heartwarming tale that brings joy and nostalgia to the holiday season. Its enchanting narrative beautifully explores the origins of this beloved symbol, reminding us of the power of nature’s resilience and the enduring spirit of hope. The book’s vivid descriptions and charming illustrations effortlessly transport readers into a world filled with wonder and festive cheer. Additionally, the book’s message of hope and resilience makes it an excellent choice for ministry training programs system. It’s a delightful read that celebrates the magic and traditions of Christmas, leaving readers with a warm and uplifting feeling.

  3. Pingback: Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly | The Peterborough & Area Master Gardeners

  4. California holly is actually not as prominent in the Santa Monica Mountains as it used to be. It is certainly there, but is obscured by so much other overgrown vegetation. The area used to burn more regularly, but has not burned in a very long time, which is a common theme throughout California, and why fires are so much worse than they have been in recorded history. California holly is not really known as such here anymore. We know it only as ‘toyon’. It used to be classified as a species of Photinia. It grows wild right outside, but is not often planted into landscapes. English holly is naturalized outside too, and a few happened to land in the landscapes. I must actually cut down another big one in the next month or so. We collected buckets of berried branches from it for those who work in a big dining room to decorate the many tables with. The berries are excellent, but the tree is not very pretty.

    • I’ve only ever seen California holly in botanical gardens.

      • What an odd place for one. They are actually not easy to grow away from their native range. Even within their native range, they are rather finicky about being planted into a refined landscape. Mine did well because they grew there on their own, and were not landscaped around.

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