Holly

by curiousmiscellany

curious misc - holly

‘Tis the season to deck the halls with boughs of holly…but, why exactly? Holly (Ilex) is a genus that includes over 500 plant species ranging from evergreen to deciduous, from trees to shrubs and existing anywhere from tropical to temperate climates. But, the holly that concerns us is the species native to Europe, the classic Ilux aquifolium, with its thick, serrated, dark green leaves and bright red berries so treasured by both the Romans and the Druids, the founders of our tradition. The Romans attributed holly to Saturn, the god of agriculture. Every December, when they celebrated the festival of Saturnalia (an event during which no war could be declared, where slaves and masters ate at the same banquet tables, and where gifts were exchanged), they decorated their feast halls with boughs of holly in the god’s honor. For the Druids, holly represented fertility and eternal life—perhaps due to holly’s evergreen leaves and red berries, which ripen just when most other flora have lost their foliage and snow begins to cover the landscape. Holly also functioned for them as a sort of anti-burglar system (Home Alone-style): the Druids hung it on windows and doorways to keep out the evil spirits, believing that they would get caught on the prickly edges of the leaves. Though a bit reluctant to adopt the decorative pagan practice, early Christians eventually relented, altering the significance to honor Jesus Christ: the thorny edges of the leaves came to represent his crown of thorns before being crucified and the red of the berries became a symbol of his blood. If that doesn’t already prevent you from wanting to taste a holly berry, perhaps this little fact will: they are toxic to humans and cause vomiting and diarrhea. On that note, Merry Christmas and Happy Saturnalia to you all!

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