Holly Symbolism

Traditionally in Britain, bringing holly sprigs inside during winter was like bringing the sun inside. The holly was said to be able to survive by seeking the pale winter sunlight.

A holly next to a beautiful flower, Gilroy, CA, 9/07

The beautiful Christmas carol, "The Holly and the Ivy," references this symbolism as well as several other ways that the holly evokes Christmas and winter. The carol describes a sunlit winter forest:

The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full-grown
Of all the trees that are in the world
The holly bears the crown.
O the rising of the sun.

Then the carol describes the white blossoms of the English holly as pure as the lilies associated with Easter. These become berries that are as red as the blood of Christ. The prickly leaves are like thorns. The bark covering the white wood is bitter. In the final verse of the song, the holly is mentioned together again with ivy, since traditionally holly represented men and ivy represented women.

Holly Life

Not all holly shrubs are evergreen with red berries under a picturesque coating of snow. There are over 400 varieties. At a local holly garden, I saw a holly with variegated leaves, yellow on the edges and green in the middle. I learned that the young leaves start out growing yellow and then begin growing green from the central base as they begin to reach their full size. Now I have observed this process of variegation on many of the non-holly plants in my garden.

A Japanese holly, which features black berries, Gilroy, CA, 9/07

The Winterberry holly looks like a modern art sculpture in winter. It lacks leaves but red berries cover its branches. This plant is native to the Eastern United States and Canada, where it provides needed food for wild turkeys, Eastern bluebirds, and deer.

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