Search the SOL website
Botanical: Ilex aquifolium
Holly has become bound to the observance of Yule, Christmas and holidays associated with the Winter Solstice. In A Modern Herbal, Grieve says that this custom dates to the Druids, "who decorated their huts with evergreens during winter as an abode for the sylvan spirits." We know that holly was given as a desired gift during the Roman festival of Saturnalia.
The Druids decorated their huts with holly during the time of Saturnalia. One suggestion for its name comes from "Ilex" which is Latin for "evergreen", and "aquifolium" meaning Latin for "pointed leaves". Many a Holly tree was spared the woodman's axe in days gone by because of a superstition that it was unlucky to cut one down. This belief probably arose because of the tree's evergreen leaves and long lasting berries, leaving people to associate Holly with eternity and the power to ward off evil and destruction. English Holly can attain a height of fifty feet. In Ireland the Holly was called the "gentle tree" and a favourite tree of the Fae. As pretty as it is to behold a word of caution, Holly leaves have sharp points that can pierce the flesh quite easily, so take care in handling it.
Holly is a very important herbe in the folklore of the magickal British Isles. In the Irish tree alphabet, the holly is T or Tinne, the eighth tree. Grieve describes it as the "most important" of those evergreen plants brought into holiday celebrations and folklore. In contemporary customs, holly which has been used to decorate the temple at Yule is kept sacred until the fires are lit at Candlemas and then it is burned in the cauldron. Many traditions work with a Holly King, a variation of the Green Man or male fertility figure. The Holly King (if he can endure wearing the sharp points of the leaves) is crowned with these hard, green leaves.
The Farrars in Eight Sabbats for Witches, provide us with exceptional information:
An extraordinary persistent version of the Holly King/Oak King theme at the Winter Solstice is the ritual hunting and killing of the wren - a folklore tradition found as far apart in time and space as ancient Greece and Rome and today's British Isles. The wren, "little king" of the Waning Year, is killed by his Waxing Year counterpart, the robin redbreast, who finds him hiding in an ivy bush (or sometimes in Ireland in a holly bush, as befits the Holly King). The robin's tree is the birch, which follows the Winter Solstice in the Celtic tree calendar. In the acted-out ritual, men hunted and killed the wren with birchrods.
In pagan folklore the Holly tree is also associated with the spirit of vegetation and the waning forces of nature, to which he is personified as a mythical figure the Holly King. The Holly King rules nature during its decline from the mid-summer solstice (Litha - Dec 21st southern hemisphere, Jun 21st northern hemisphere) through to the mid-winter solstice (Yule - June 21st southern hemisphere, Dec 21st northern hemisphere). At each of the solstice Sabbats, the Holly King and his brother the Oak King engage in ritual combat for the attentions of the Goddess, from whence the victor presides over nature through the following half of the year.
In his personification as the Holly King, he is often depicted as an old man dressed in winter clothing wearing a wreath of Holly on his head and walking with the aid of a staff made from a Holly branch. This is symbolic of the fertile interaction of the Goddess and God during natures decline and the darkest time of the year. At Yule after his battle with the Oak King, the new light of the sun-God re-emerges to encourage fresh growth during the coming new year. After the advent of Christianity, and during their Christmas and New Year celebrations, a man would be dressed up and covered in Holly branches and leaves, while a woman was likewise dressed in Ivy (the female counterpart of Holly) and together paraded through the streets leading the old year into the new.
An old legend declares that the Holly first sprang up under the footsteps of Christ, when He trod the earth, and its thorny leaves and scarlet berries, like drops of blood, have been thought symbolical of the Saviour's sufferings, for which reason the tree is called 'Christ's Thorn' in the languages of the northern countries of Europe. It is, perhaps, in connexion with these legends that the tree was called the Holy Tree, as it is generally named by older writers. Turner, for instance, refers to it by this name in his Herbal published in 1568.
Holly is an ideal herbe to fashion into a wreath with which to celebrate the welcome of a new member into the community. Despite the wonderful illustrations which romanticize the wearing of holly, it is not well-suited for human flesh. The thorns of the leaves are extremely sharp whether the leaves are fresh or withered. Holly can be included in decorative fashion, carefully added to other herbes for a wreath or even placed into vases which are set about the temple. Some have carefully taken holly leaves and used them to decorate a ritual robe and many have adopted holly as a design.
Some old stories tell us that when winter came the old druids advised the people to take Holly into their homes to shelter the elves and fairies who could join mortals at this time without causing them harm, but these stories also tell of a warning, to make sure and remove the Holly entirely before the eve of Imbolc, for to leave just one leaf in the house would cause misfortune.
Holly has been regarded as a powerful protective wood, good against evil spirits, poisons, angry elementals, and lightning. It is also associated with dream magick and fertility, and is well-suited for any magick dealing with the overthrow of old authorities, success in business or endeavour, or spells seeking progress to a new stage of development. Holly wood is very fine-grained, hard, and smooth, and almost ivory in colour if it is not stained. It is a truly exquisite wood for wands. It is also well-suited for the handle of a ritual knife, as it contains magick which can both attract and repel; it is powerful when defence is needed and its strength can protect the Circle and cherish the gentleness within.
Grown around the home it protects from mischievous sorcerers. Throw at wild animals to cause them to quietly lie down and leave you alone. Sprinkle newborn babies with "holly water" (water in which holly has been soaked, especially if left under a full moon overnight) to keep them happy and safe. Planted near a house, holly repels negative spells sent against you. A bag of leaves and berries carried by a man increases his ability to attract women.
Those who move into the mysteries of the crone might press a leaf and add it to their Book of Shadows.
Bach Flower Remedies
15 HOLLY (Ilex aquifolium)