Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Christmas holly

Holly (Ilex aquifolium) with its shiny dark green leaves and scarlet berries was formerly much in demand for decorating houses at Christmas. Indeed, in some parts of England, including Cornwall and Norfolk, it was known simply as ‘Christmas’.

Although it was sought after for Christmas decorations, in many areas it was thought unlucky to bring it indoors before Christmas Eve, or Christmas Day.  In Shropshire in the 1930s and 40s:

‘Holly must not be brought into the house before Christmas Day, or sometimes Christmas Eve.  It was unlucky to bring it in before. The actual day varied from person to person’ [1].

However, well-berried holly was a valuable commodity in the weeks before Christmas.  Thus on 24 December 1980, The Times reported:

‘In the principal markets holly has been selling at £1.25 for a generous handful and £5 for an armload.  Supplies come more or less equally from farmers who find a useful supplementary cash crop in their hedgerows, and gypsies who gather it with or without permission.                                                                                        Some gypsy families supplying dealers at the Western International Market, Southall, London, reckon to have made as much as £1,500 on holly alone this year ….                                                                                                                         It seems likely that the total sales of holly this year will exceed £500,000 at wholesale prices.  What retailers will take, at 20p to 30p a sprig is anyone’s guess.’

Since then the popularity of holly seems to have declined.  Its twigs are often ungainly and difficult to arrange, and in centrally heated homes its leaves soon lose their attractive sheen and drop.  Consquently it appears to becoming replaced by the more shapely, leaf-less, winterberry (also known as Dutch ilex), Ilex verticillata, native to North America.

In some areas holly was used instead of a conifer as a Christmas tree:

‘Many Cornish families (including my family) would never dream of having  a conifer as a Christmas tree – it has to be holly’ [2].

After Christmas there various beliefs concerning the removal and disposal of the holly.  Usually, it seems, it should not be burnt:

‘After the decorations are taken down … woe betide anyone who put holly on the fire in the house; it was another taboo of my [Norfolk] grandmother; it had to go out on the muck heap’ [3].

Holly and other decorations should be removed by Twelfth Night (6 January):

‘All decorations, holly and mistletoe [Viscum album] had to be taken down before old Christmas Day (or Twelfth Night).  A saying … “It must come down before old Christmas Day, or the Devil will dance on every spray”.’ [4].

1.  Longford, Shropshire, April 1997.

2. St Wenn, Cornwall, November 2003.

3. Two Locks, Gwent, March 1992.

4. Tregaer, Monmouthshire, October 2013.

Adapted from Vickery’s Folk Flora, due to be published in April 2019.

Images:  main, Tooting Common, London Borough of Wandsworth, December 2018; upper inset, holly wreath on front door, Brock Street, Bath, Somerset, 9 December 2018 (such wreaths are exceedingly rare, most wreaths are made of more exotic materials); lower inset, winterberry for sale from a stall outside Brixton tube station, London Borough of Lambeth, December 2018.

Edited 8 February 2020.