The name holly comes from the Anglo-Saxon word holegn, for the tree used to decorate houses in winter. Much folklore surrounds the holly, but mainly the tree is associated with Christmas, featuring in cards and traditional carols, and being widely used as a Christmas decoration.

In the UK this use seems to have originated in the Roman festival of Saturnalia in late December, later adopted by Christians. By the 15th century, holly boughs were being used to decorate churches at Christmas, often being bought in large quantities. It was also the evergreen of choice to decorate houses, and before the introduction of conifers, small hollies were used as indoor Christmas trees. This use persisted until the middle of the 20th century.

Until recently, collecting wild holly for sale provided seasonal work for town dwellers who would spend a few weeks in the countryside cutting holly, in the same way that Londoners traditionally undertook hop-picking in Kent.

Many of the beliefs about holly, even comparatively modern ones, relate directly to Christianity:

  • holly supposedly provided the timber for Jesus’ cross
  • the red berries apparently appeared after a nativity lamb was caught in a holly bush
  • holly berries were thought to represent the drops of blood caused by Christ’s crown of thorns and before this, the berries were yellow
  • the robin apparently obtained its red breast while eating the berries from the crown of thorns
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