Friday, December 02, 2016

Supernatural Friday: The Holidays Aren’t the Holidays Without Holly and its Berries!

There is an old wife’s tale; lots of holly berries means a big freeze is on the way. Now, is this true? If there are masses of red berries on the holly bushes and trees this year, does that mean we are set for another cold winter?

Holly is one of the best-known evergreens because of its association with Christmas. There are over 500 different species of holly or Ilex. Hollies are dioecious, meaning there are both female and male plants, which cannot bear fruits without the other growing close by. The berries are poisonous to humans. But they are one of the few berries available in the winter and birds love them. This is may be one of the reasons why Christmas cards often illustrate birds and holly together. 

Sometime, there are no berries on the bushes or trees. One, natural reason is if there are no berries on yours, the bush or tree may be male and simply cannot produce berries. It also means that if all your holly bushes do not have berries, that they may all be male or they all may be female. Without any male holly bushes nearby, the female holly bushes will not produce berries either. Another reason for berry-less holly bushes might be due to the weather. If it is cold or rainy when the holly was blooming, this can prevent insects or wind from spreading the pollen, or the cold may injure the blossoms. Like in Virginia, there has been a lot of rain this year.

Though holly is brought into the house for its shiny green leaves and berries, which reflect the light and add color to the dark days of Yule, there is another significance as well. Christian symbolism connected the prickly leaves with Jesus' crown of thorns and the berries with the drops of blood shed for humanity's salvation. While holly is most often pictured as having red berries, the berries come in other colors too. One tradition say that white berries represent Jesus' purity, green berries the cross of wood, while black berries his death. 

Yet, there’s reference to these two plants in a pre-Christian celebration, where a boy would be dressed in a suit of holly leaves and a girl similarly in ivy, to parade around the village, bringing Nature through the darkest part of the year to re-emerge for another year's fertility.

Holly was the sacred plant of Saturn and used at the Roman Saturnalia festival to honor him.  Romans gave one another holly wreaths and carried them about, decorating images of Saturn with it.

Holly was also brought into the house variously to protect the home from malevolent faeries or to allow faeries to shelter in the home without friction between them and the human occupants. Whichever of prickly-leaved or smooth-leaved holly was brought into the house first dictated whether the husband or wife respectively were to rule the household for the coming year.

In Celtic mythology the Holly King was said to rule over the half of the year from the summer to the winter solstice, at which time the Oak King defeated the Holly King to rule for the time until the summer solstice again. These two aspects of the Nature god were later incorporated into Mummers' plays traditionally performed around Yuletide. The Holly King was depicted as a powerful giant of a man covered in holly leaves and branches, and wielding a holly bush as a club. He may well have been the same archetype on which the Green Knight of Arthurian legend was based, and to whose challenge Gawain rose during the Round Table's Christmas celebrations.
The folklore of the holly is not solely connected with Yuletide festivities. Like the belief is that if you hung holly over your bed, you would have good dreams. Like several other native trees, it was felt to have protective properties. There were taboos against cutting down a whole tree. A reason for this might be to obstruct witches known to run along the tops of hedges, though more practically farmers used their distinctive evergreen shapes to establish lines of sight during winter ploughing.
Folklore suggested that the wood of the holly trees had an affinity for control, especially of horses, and most whips for ploughmen and horse-drawn coaches were made from coppiced holly, which accounted for hundreds of thousands of stems during the eighteenth century.

Holly trees were traditionally known for protection from lightning strikes, to which end they were planted near a house. In European mythology, holly was associated with thunder gods such as Thor and Taranis. We now know that the spines on the distinctively-shaped holly leaves can act as miniature lightning conductors, thereby protecting the tree and other nearby objects.

Whatever the stories about the holly berries or greenery, it is definitely believed that it makes for beautiful, natural decorations at Christmas time.

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