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Missouri Environment & Garden


David Trinklein
University of Missouri
Plant Science & Technology
(573) 882-9631

The Holly and the Ivy

David Trinklein
University of Missouri
(573) 882-9631

Published: December 1, 2009

The holiday season is steeped with many traditions and none perhaps quite as strong as decorating the home with plants and plant material. While Christmas trees and poinsettias dominate the plants usually associated with the holidays, there are other species that add much to this festive time of the year which is laden with tradition.

The word “tradition” is derived from the Latin traditionem which means “handing over” or “passing on”. Indeed, the concept of a tradition is to keep alive a practice that has been in place for generations, if not centuries. More often than not, the reason behind a certain tradition, such as the use of greenery at Christmas, has long been lost. Yet the tradition continues.

The use of plants for indoor decoration at this time of the year actually can be traced back to pagan practices of the pre-Christian era associated with the winter solstice. The latter typically occurs December 21st/ 22nd. Although various cultures commemorated this event in different ways, evergreens seem to be a common denominator that united all celebrations. Early civilizations considered evergreen plants to be symbolic of life. The use of these plants to adorn homes during the winter was believed to assure the survival of household members through what were often very harsh, austere conditions, and to remind them of the planting season that (hopefully) was soon to come.

Holly and ivy are examples of evergreens used for decorative purposes well before the Christian era. Holly was the sacred plant of the Roman god Saturn and an important part of the Roman festival of Saturnalia. This festival was held on December 17th (later expanded to conclude on the 25th) to commemorate the dedication of the temple of Saturn. Additionally, the Druids considered holly to be sacred and believed its use would ward off evil spirits. Undoubtedly, both civilizations enjoyed the contrast between holly’s bright red berries and glossy green foliage during a rather dull, colorless time of the year.

Ivy was associated with Bacchus, the Roman god of wine. The festival honoring Bacchus was quite raucous and involved imbibing large quantities of wine. Revelers thought that wearing a crown fashioned from ivy would spare them from the after effects of excessive consumption. Later civilizations associated ivy with (among other things) death. Oak was a sacred tree to the Celts and Druids and the fact that ivy could kill a tree it overgrew such as a mighty oak was quite symbolic to those people of the power it held. Ivy also was considered a symbol of fidelity, fertility and good luck.

Decorating the home with evergreens was considered a form of pagan idolatry for many years after the Church (in 336 A.D.) designated December 25th as the day Christmas was to be observed. Slowly, the association of indoor plant use at this time of the year was transferred from paganism to Christianity. For example, “The Holly and the Ivy” is a popular Christmas carol that dates back to the 15th century. It took holly, a plant with deep pagan roots, and gave it Christian symbolism instead. The original version of the song published nearly 1000 years earlier was quite different and described a contest between the two plants for a favorite spot in the hall (home).

Another popular carol entreats those celebrating Christmas to “deck the halls with boughs of holly.” Indeed, until the 19th century holly was much more popular than Christmas trees for interior decoration. This custom probably dates back to the 17th century when Oliver Cromwell, English political figure, banned traditional celebrations of Christmas, deeming them too pagan in nature. In response, many people tied up “holy” boughs of mixed evergreens and hung them in their homes at Christmas. The “holy” gradually became “holly” and we still festoon our homes with boughs of holly at this festive time of the year.

Other, traditions associated holly as being a male plant (not entirely wrong since it is dioecious) and ivy as being female. Superstition maintained that whichever plant was brought into the house first at the holidays would determine whether the man or woman of the household would “rule” during the coming year. Additionally, “holly-boy” and “ivy-girl” effigies were often fashioned to be stolen by members of the opposite sex and burned in effigy. The meaning behind the latter act is uncertain, if not alarming.

Plants such as holly, ivy and other evergreens were rarely brought into the home before Christmas Eve in days of old and to do otherwise was considered “bad luck” for the coming year. This meant that the greenery and other plant material used still were fresh for Christmas Day and posed much less of a fire hazard–a definite “must” when one considers the primary source of illumination during that era was through the use of live candles.

Given our current tendency to start decorating for the holiday season early, greenery and other cut plant material brought into the home at the beginning of the season is likely to get very dry by the time New Year’s Day arrives. This, in turn, could pose a fire hazard. It is important to start with plant material as fresh as possible. The very freshest greenery comes from one’s own landscape and should be used whenever possible. If the latter is not an option, purchase greens as soon as they become available at retail outlets. Homeowners generally can take better care of greenery than merchants who have an abundant inventory to care for on the sales lot. After purchasing, re-cut the stems and place the cut ends of the greenery in water. Keep the plant material in the coolest place possible until it is time to move it indoors.

When moved indoors, never place decorations containing greenery near sources of heat such as hot air ducts, radiators or appliances that produce heat. Fireplaces where sparks from an open flame might ignite greenery should also be avoided. Plant material should be removed if/when it becomes dry. The latter will vary according to species, use and indoor location.

Another safety aspect concerning plant material used in holiday decoration involves knowing which traditional plants contain toxic compounds that might represent a health risk, especially if children are present. For example, the fruit (red berries) of holly (Ilex aquifolium) are considered mildly poisonous because of a compound called illicin and can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea if ingested. These bright berries are quite appealing to young children and special care should be taken if holly is used in seasonal decorations in households with small children present. Keep the holly well out of the reach of youngsters and make sure that any berries which might accidently fall from the decoration cannot be retrieved by a curious child.

English ivy (Hedera helix) also produces a toxic compound known as saponin but poisonings from this plant are extremely rare due to the relatively low levels of the toxic agent in leaf tissue.

As you decorating with greenery such as holly and ivy this holiday season remember you are helping to perpetuate a tradition rich in symbolism and meaning that has been ongoing for many centuries. Unlike our ancient ancestors, we give little thought to making it through the rigors of winter. However, like people of all ages we appreciate the beauty of plants and the joy they bring to our lives when used in holiday decorations.

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