December 2006 – Holly Berries
There are several varieties of holly (Ilex aquifolium) growing in the Cemetery. The bright red berries of the Holly, as on this enchanting specimen, are only found on the female plants and need a male plant nearby to ensure fertilisation of the flowers takes place in May when the tree has its blossom, resulting in the abundant berries in the autumn. The berries are much loved by Blackbirds and Thrushes.
It is thought that the use of holly as a Christmas decoration was adopted by early Roman Christians from the Roman festival of Saturnalia. In Medieval Europe holly was associated with good fortune: trees planted near homes were said to offer protection from thunder and lightning. The berries and leaves were used to ward off witchcraft and the evil eye – said to be more effective for men than women.
Early Christian legend maintained that because the Cross on which Christ was crucified was made of holly wood, and the Crown of Thorns of holly leaves, the tree has since been reduced to the status of a “scrub” tree. The berries (which were erroneously thought to have been originally yellow) were believed to have become red with the blood of Christ.
In Wales, family quarrels occur if holly is brought into the house prior to Christmas Even. If decorations are left up beyond New Year’s or Twelfth Night it is said that a misfortune will occur for each leaf and branch remaining. Taking holly into the home of a friend or picking holly in blossom will cause death, legend has it. In Germany, it is unlucky to step on the berries. A severe winter will occur if holly berries are plentiful.
Yet a piece of holly kept from the Church decorations is said to bring good fortune throughout the year. Similarly, if holly is hung in the barn, animals will fatten and thrive. If holly is picked on Christmas Day, it will serve as protection against witches and evil spirits.
Today, many centuries later, the tradition of decorating our homes with evergreens during the Christmas season continues. These modern day boughs of holly and garlands of pine are just as likely to be artificial as fresh, but the festive custom remains. And, while we may no longer believe that holly branches and mistletoe are the dwellings of forest spirits, they certainly do a lot to lift our own spirits during the holidays. ‘Tis the season to be jolly!
Merry Christmas to You All, from All of Us in the Ryde Social Heritage Group.