Folklore and traditions of Holly Ivy and Mistletoe
Holly, ivy and mistletoe have been used in Europe since pre-Christian times to celebrate the winter solstice (December 21st) because they remain green throughout the winter these plants symbolised eternal life. Bringing greenery into the home would ensure that new growth would return in the spring and ward off evil spirits, but it was unlucky to bring either into a house before Christmas Eve.
Evergreens were also brought into the home by Romans celebrating Saturnalia, the mid-winter celebration in honour of the god Saturn.
Early Christians attached their own meanings and symbolism to the plants. The church in many western countries banned bringing greenery into the home but the tradition remained in countries such as the UK and Germany.
Holly was once believed to be a fertility symbol as well as having magical powers and the ability to protect the home against witches, goblins and demons (perhaps originating from the use of holly, with its dense spiky leaves, to protect saplings of more valuable saplings such as oak from grazing animals). In medieval times unmarried women would tie a sprig of holly to their beds to ward off demons and the like, which were thought to be more active around Christmas time.
Christians use holly’s prickly leaves to symbolise the crown of thorns worn by Christ at His crucifixion, the bright red berries symbolising his drops of blood. In Scandinavia, holly is known as Christ Thorn.
In Roman times ivy was the symbol of Bacchus, the god of wine and revelry. Due to its pagan associations, ivy was banned from the insides of churches and Christian homes, and used only to decorate the outsides. In Germany, a piece of ivy tied to the outside of a church was once believed to protect it from lightning.
In pagan times holly was seen as male and ivy as female. An old tradition from the Midlands says that whichever one was brought into the house first over winter, tells you whether the man or woman of the house would rule that year!
Mistletoe is a parasitic plant which attaches to the canopy of its host tree from which it draws water and minerals. Remaining evergreen throughout the winter, when the tree it is growing on loses its leaves may have given rise to the beliefs that surround it.
Mistletoe was sacred to the people of ancient Britain and was considered to have magical properties here and in ancient Rome. The Celts believed that mistletoe could cure diseases and render poisons harmless. It was also believed to boost fertility in animals and humans, protect the house from evil spirits and bring good luck.
Kissing under mistletoe seems to originate from similar ancient Roman and Norse legends. Tradition has it that the more berries the mistletoe has, the more kisses are possible. With every kiss a berry was plucked until the berries were all gone and the kissing stopped. In some parts of England the Christmas mistletoe was burned on twelfth night. If it wasn't then the boys and girls who kissed under it may never marry.