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Holly Mainly Just for Christmas

How Stean  Blog December 2015

The Holly Mainly Just for Christmas

Holly is of course the archetypical plant of the festive season. We pick it and display it and think it’s Christmas. Well despite it now being part of the Christian celebration it was originally most likely Pagan and to them it was a plant of great significance. Holly was also a type of offering that was given to the God Saturn by the Romans during the festival of Saturnalia. It was said that the holly was the sacred plant of Saturn and was thus even more valued by the Romans. All images of Saturn are depicted with him with the holly. It is also considered a special gift that was interchanged with a high regard for its symbolism. It is probably significant to Christians because of the crown of thorns worn by Christ at his crucifixion with the berries symbolising the blood. Holly is associated with the death and rebirth symbolism of winter in both Pagan and Christian lore and is important to the Winter Solstice. In Arthurian legend, Gawain (representing the Oak King of summer) fought the Green Knight, who was armed with a holly club to represent winter. It is one of the three timbers used in the construction of chariot wheel shafts. It was used in spear shafts also. The qualities of a spear shaft are balance and directness, as the spear must be hefted to be thrown the holly indicates directed balance and vigour to fight if the cause is just. In many areas of the country and some say particularly in Nidderdale holly was more prosaically used as winter fodder for the valley’s animals. The leaves towards the top of the tree don’t have prickles and can be eaten when other food isn’t available, although even for cattle it must have represented a last resort. Nevertheless because of this practice and the consequent proliferation of holly locally the holly blue butterfly has also done well in Nidderdale, using as the name suggests the holly as a food plant for its first brood of the year. In my view this year we seem to be short of berries for our wintering birds and maybe before you plunder the holly for your festive decorations you might wish to consider this….


There are many places named after holly and Hollins is perhaps the best known one and these names reflect the importance of holly in the past. In fact Hollin probably stands for a group or grove of hollies that were regularly lopped for cattle feed. It was also fed to sheep. Maybe you know of places near How Stean which have a meaning related to the holly? Now this might be useful stuff to know about holly at least for the males who read this, a bag of leaves and berries carried by a man is said to increase his ability to attract women. I can’t for the life of me think why, so any suitable thoughts would be appreciated. Finally Nicolas Culpeper, the English botanist, herbalist and physician, wrote in 1653 about the holly, holm or holver bush that used in various forms could bind the body, stop fluxs and the terms in women, aid broken bones and dislocations, defend houses from lightening and men from witchcraft. But perhaps at this time of year most useful the berries expel wind and therefore are held to be profitable in colic. Happy Christmas to you all.


Nigel Heptinstall (Personal Blog: Outdoors2015 email: