By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 8 December 2015)
Holly and ivy are evergreen plants, so they could be used for decoration even in the depths of winter, evoking the coming spring and hope for the new year. These plants were symbolic to both the ancient Celts and the Christians.
The Celts believed that holly protected their homes from harmful faeries or provided shelter for faeries so that they would not bother anyone in the household. Holly was also associated with mythical royalty, as the Holly King, who features prominently in Celtic lore, ruled from the summer to the winter solstice, when he was defeated by the Oak King, who then ruled until the summer solstice. The Holly King symbolism may have been the basis for the Green Knight of Arthurian legend.
Holly was also important to the Nordic peoples, who associated it with Thor, god of thunder and lightning, and to various other ancient peoples who believed that it protected against lightning. Interestingly, the leaves of this plant can actually act as lightning conductors, allowing holly trees to better withstand a lightning strike. Holly was also powerfully symbolic to the Christians, who associated the plant’s prickly leaves with the crown of thorns worn by Jesus and its deep-red berries with the blood of Christ.
The Celts also believed that ivy protected against misfortune, and medieval Christians tied ivy to church exteriors to protect against lightning.
In addition to its protective symbolism, ivy was associated with Bacchus, the Roman god of agriculture and wine, who was modeled after the Greek god Dionysus. The Bacchus association likely increased ivy’s popularity as a symbol of the decadent midwinter Saturnalia celebration.
For more on the history of Christmas traditions and symbols, as well as gift and food ideas for the holiday season, see the main Christmas page. For more plant articles, see the main Gardening and Plants page.