Due to a lots of wreath-making and a lot of driving around with Christmas music on, I have had this song going round my head a lot lately, and I wondered why the holly (because that was the first tree in the greenwood, according to the song at least) is so special at Christmas.
Obviously it has the benefit of being evergreen, so is hard to miss once all other greenery has gone, and the red berries are striking until the birds get them, but it does seem to feature in an awful lot of songs, carols and folklore.
The holly we know, Ilex europeaus, can be found all the way down to the Mediterranean, but it’s only in the British Isles that you find true holly woods. On the beach at Dungeness is a strange, stunted holly wood, first mentioned in the eigth century. Its survival is probably due to the value of holly in sea defences, as it was the traditional wood used for making groynes. Other industrial uses, include Needwood Forest in Staffordshire, where 150,000 trees were felled to supply bobbins for the Lancashire cotton mills in the early 1800s.
In many places farmers have cut holly boughs for winter forage for sheep & cattle, but like many traditional practices, this is very localised, often varying from parish to parish. It is widely accepted to be OK to cut boughs, whether for animal feed or decking the halls at Christmas, but it is widely held to be very bad luck to cut down a holly tree. There are so many beliefs about hollies and luck, and people have been taking it into their homes for luck, for fertility and nowadays just for decoration, but this taboo on cutting down trees is widespread and persisting. The link between holly & magic has always been strong – I have always been aware of the story that holly trees are left to grow up in hedges to stop witches running along the top of the hedgerows, and in some areas, it is thought that if you cut down a holly, a witch springs up in its place.
These magical associations have often morphed into practical uses – for example, holly’s magical mastery over horses meant it was used as the base for riding and driving whips. When horse-drawn transport was at its peak, some 210,000 holly whips were made every year in the UK.
The dense, evergreen mass of a holly tree can provide a lot of shade or shelter, and farmers have often been aware of certain trees that are frequently used by livestock to shelter under when giving birth. True gipsy women were believed to do the same! Holly is unusual amongst trees in that it can be found in so many forms (hedgerow, hedgerow standard, forest tree, open ground, cliff tops, sun, shade etc), and seems to survive most things that human use, animal use and the elements can throw at it.
Obviously many of these traditions pre-date Christianity in Britain, but it has easily been adopted into Christian tradition by associataing the red berries with the blood of Christ, and the prickles with the crown of thorns etc. The Holly & The Ivy, Deck The Halls and The First Tree in the Greenwood (aka The Sans Day Carol) are still favourites, and holly is still traded at markets up & down the country in the run-up to Christmas, including at the famous holly & mistletoe market at Tenbury Wells.
Last but not least, it is a vitally important plant for wildlife. The dense, prickly foliage is ideal for protecting nesting and roosting birds, and being evergreen, is useful winter refuge. The red berries, which seem to magically vanish the day before you planned to pick them, are vital to birds fattening up or getting themselves through a cold patch, and the small but incredibly numerous flowers are great for pollinators. The foliage is the food plant for the holly blue butterfly, amongst others, and it is buzzing with life on a warm summers day.
However, warm summers days are irrelevant right now – what we want is a sharp frost to rim the edges of the leaves, bring down the thrushes and the red wings, and get out there with your secateurs and cut a few sprigs for decking the halls. For instructions on how to make a basic wreath, see my previous blog, or just poke a few sprigs behind mirrors, pictures etc.
As for finding your nearest holly? Just about anywhere! Woodlands such as Langdon Hill, Thorncombe Woods, Trinity Hill etc are great, but literally any hedgerow will do. Finding the berries, though, may be more of a challenge!