The Druids considered holly sacred and used it in particular at Christmas, for cattle were supposed to thrive if they looked at it on Christmas Day.
After Christmas, the holly still had an important part to play. On Hogmanay in the Scottish Highlands, boys whipped each other with its prickly boughs – for good luck! Each drop of blood drawn from this painful rite meant a year of good health and prosperity. In some places, Christmas holly had to be burned at Twelfth Night or ill-luck would follow. Another old custom ruled that it should stay up until Shrove Tuesday, and yet another, that it must be kept until the following year to protect the house from Lightning. In Scotland, Candlemas Eve (February 1st) was the proper time, before the old festival of Brigid welcomed in the returning light. In Robert Herrick’s carol ‘Candlemas Eve,’ holly is replaced by new greenery:
Down with the rosemary and bays,
Down with the mistletoe;
Instead of holly, now upraise
The greener box, for show.
The foliage was often burned in a ceremonial manner. In the Lake District, an annual procession took place called the ‘Carrying of the Holling or Holly tree’. The tree was lit and was carried aloft through the town, followed by people bearing torches and flaming branches, while others set off rockets and squibs.
Another famous holly procession took place on Boxing Day (St. Stephen’s Day) in parts of Scotland and Ireland. In the ancient ritual known as the ‘Hunting of the Wren’, one or more birds were killed and suspended from a huge holly-bush hung on a pole, which was carried through the town by a group of boys, who would stop at houses to beg for money.
An elaborate burning ritual for winter greenery took place in eighteenth-century Kent where the girls had to steal a ‘holly boy’ from the boys who in turn had to steal an ‘ivy girl’ from the girls. Both effigies were burnt in what might be seen as a ritual pyre for the dying monarchs of the old year. A similar battle took place in South Wales on Boxing Day which was known as ‘Holming Day’ where the boys attacked the girls with holly branches, symbolizing no doubt the triumph of the masculine principle of light over the feminine dark.
Its life-affirming colours seem to have made it a popular ritual tree at Easter too, at least in Northumberland. Last century, lads and lasses went into the woods to gather holly on Easter Tuesday, accompanied by the parish clerk who played his violin. They decorated the stone cross with the branches, and then danced. Here it seems to have symbolized the resurrection, but other Christian legends equate the tree with the wood of the crucifix, and claim that from then on it was cursed to grow as a stunted and prickly bush. Like the legends that surround the hawthorn, holly too was supposed to have made Christ’s crown of thorns, and His blood stained the berries red; ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ uses the holly’s white blossom, red berries and bitter bark to demarcate the stages of Jesus’ life. Originally, holly is from Old English ‘hoelrgn’ and from Old Norse,’Hulfr,’ which gave rise to its medieval name, ‘hulver’, used by Chaucer. But the church ‘christianized’ the tree by declaring its name meant ‘holy’.