My Celtic Holly art - plus a look at holly folklore, tales, meaning & symbolism...
Celtic tree calendar: 8 July to 4 August
A Useful Tree
The Old Irish ‘Brehon’ laws saw holly as a ‘chieftain’ tree – an important tree.
The wood of the holly was widely used for charcoal and chariot/cart wheels, spear-shafts, door handles and sills, walking sticks, and whips.
Holly wood is white and is used as a replacement for ivory (such as for knife handles) and is stained black as a ‘poor man’s ebony’ especially for furniture marquetry.
Holly bark was used in bird lime which was exported from the UK as an insecticide.
And holly makes a strong and protective hedge, while holly leaves can be used to stop mice eating seeds…
Yet, young holly stems were fed to cows to improve the milk and make it taste sweet – and animals including sheep and deer will eat holly leaves in winter whilst little birds feast on the berries.
A Midwinter Tree
The main symbolic importance of holly is in its evergreen nature - in the darkest midwinter days, the holly stays shiny and green and is even lit up with brilliant red berries - the hardy leaves withstanding even the harshest winter weathers.
The power of the holly was seen to be in its life force - its living energy, so strong and vibrant in midwinter. This led to Druids advising people to bring the green foliage inside to decorate their homes and bring that life force inside.
The glossy leaves of the holly also reflected all available light around home and made those darkest days of winter a little lighter and brighter, lifting the mood of the inhabitants of the home.
It was also thought that the foliage would provide shelter to the elves and fairies who could live safely side by side with humans at this special time – with the caveat that the holly foliage should be removed by Imbolc Eve (31st January).
Holly is associated with the Roman feast of Saturnalia, honouring the Roman god Saturn (or his Ancient Greek equivalent, Kronos) – an agricultural god associated with old age and known as ‘Old Father Time’.
Holly wreaths were worn and there was much feasting, merry-making, and gift-giving. Saturnalia was originally celebrated on 17th December for five days, later moving to the winter solstice around 22nd December.
It is believed that these midwinter festivities influenced the form of the Christian celebration of Christ’s birth on 25th December.
Christian stories tell that the holly sprang from Christ’s footsteps and the prickly leaves symbolise the suffering of Christ, and the red berries, his blood. Holly is known as ‘Christ’s Thorn’ in parts of Europe.
It was believed that holly should not be brought into the home before Christmas Eve – and it should be brought in by a man…
But it would be wise to choose equal amounts of smooth-leaved holly (called ‘she-holly’) and prickly-leaved holly (‘he-holly’) to decorate the home, so ensuring an equal role for both husband and wife in the coming year...
In actual fact, the smoothness or prickliness of the leaf does not denote the sex of the holly bush - only the female holly will have berries although both male and female will flower.
A holly sprig with red berries was used for the Christmas pudding – and a leaf should be kept and burnt under next year’s pudding.
While you shouldn’t bring holly into the house before Christmas Eve, you should also be careful about removing every berry and leaf before Twelfth Night, else bad luck (or goblins!) shall befall you in the coming year…
“Down with the holly, ivie, all,
It was seen as lucky, still, to keep a sprig of holly from Christmas to hang it outside the home to protect it in the coming year.
In Brough, Westmorland, a blazing holly branch was carried through the streets with much festivity at Twelfth Night – known as ‘Holly Night’ there.
Meet the Holly King
The midwinter celebrations of holly ties in with legends and traditions of the Holly King.
The Holly King is a medieval symbol but is associated with earlier figures such as the Roman god Saturn and Greek god Kronos/Cronus, also known as ‘Old Father Time’ and linked to the wild-men of the Hunt such as the Celtic Cernunnos and other gods of winter.
The Holly King is traditionally depicted as a huge wild-man covered in holly branches and foliage and carrying a holly club – and often referred to as the Wildman.
The Holly King is the god or guardian of the darker part of the year, while the Oak King is the god or guardian of the lighter part of the year…
But the switch-over was marked at the solstices – so the Oak King guards the waxing year of fecundity (from midwinter to midsummer) - and hands over the mantel at midsummer to the Holly King who guards the waning year (midsummer to midwinter) – the period of harvest, the dying days of the year and dormancy.
This is why we see the holly tree, which we normally associate with midwinter festivities, celebrated in the very middle of summer, as the solstice is marked as a turning point in the year – the fulcrum point where the natural world starts to wane and die, ready to re-emerge again at the winter solstice.
In medieval times, mummers plays depicted the Oak King and Holly King competing for the hand of the lady goddess – the goddess of the land.
The Oak King must ‘win’ at midwinter, to bring the land into growth and fertility – and equally, the Holly King must 'win' at midsummer, to take the land into harvest and old age (the ‘dying days’ of summer) so that the cycle of life can begin again anew the following year.
Tales of King Arthur also follow the theme…
In the tale of Gawain and the Green Knight, we see the Green Knight, huge, green, and terrible, covered with foliage and with a crown of holly, representing the Holly King – and Gawain, with a rod of oak, given the task of defeating the Holly King/Green Knight.
Through the Holly King, the holly is associated with themes of old age and sacrifice, as well as being celebrated as the guardian of the sacred life force through these darkest winter months.
Tree of Fire
The Gaelic word for holly is ‘Tinne’, which means ‘molten metal’ or ‘ingot’ and derives from the Old Gaelic ‘teine’ meaning ‘fire’.
In Celtic legend, the god Oengus calls holly ‘smiur guaile’ – ‘fires of coal’ – while the Celtic hero Cuchulainn calls it ‘a third of weapons, an iron bar’. Holly is strongly linked to fire and smith craft…
Holly is one of the hottest-burning trees – so it was used by Druids for their solstice fires, as well as being used for blacksmiths’ fires, especially when forging swords, axe-heads, weapons, and other important tools.
Holly is thus linked to the Celtic smith god, Govannon (Welsh) or Goibniu (Irish) – and also the Anglo-Saxon smith god, Weyland. Govannon/Goibniu is said to possess the mead/ale of eternal life (linking back to the life-force of the holly) – and he’s associated with skills, strength and endurance.
The custom of first-footing in Scotland and the North of England, when a man carries coal and greenery (holly) over the threshold at New Year may be linked to these themes, too.
The Lightning Tree
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