In many Western cultures, holly is a traditional Christmas decoration, used especially in wreaths. Many of the hollies are highly decorative, and it’s believed that it and the green ivy that is usually used alongside it in decorating is why the colors red and green have come to be representative of Christmas.
The pagan Druids are believed to have been the first to take holly to heart. They viewed holly as a sacred plant, designed to keep the earth beautiful even in the harshest of conditions. When they ventured into the forest to witness the priests cut their sacred mistletoe, they wore sprigs of holly in their hair.
Romans gave one another holly wreaths and carried them about, decorating images of Saturn with it during their Saturnalia festival. Centuries later, in December, while other Romans continued their pagan worship, Christians celebrated the birth of Jesus. To avoid persecution from the Romans however, they decked their homes with Saturnalia holly. As Christian numbers increased and their customs prevailed, holly lost its pagan association, then becoming a symbol of Christmas.
In West England it is said sprigs of holly around a young girl’s bed on Christmas Eve are suppose to keep away mischievous little goblins. In Germany, a piece that has been used in church decorations is regarded as a charm against lightning. In England, British farmers put sprigs of holly on their beehives. On the first Christmas, they believed, the bees hummed in honor of the Christ Child. Other beliefs included putting a sprig of holly on the bedpost to bring sweet dreams and making a tonic from holly to cure a cough, and to this day, families are still decking their halls with boughs of holly during the holiday season as a result.
Though mildly toxic to humans, holly berries are a very important food source for numerous species of birds, and also are eaten by other wild animals. After being frozen or frosted several times during the cold winter months, the berries soften and become edible. During winter storms, birds often take refuge in hollies, which provide shelter. Their spiny leaves also provide protection from predators.
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