How Did Holly Become Associated With Christmas?

Updated on February 10, 2020
OldRoses profile image

Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.

Red Holly Berries
Red Holly Berries | Source

Holly has long been associated with the Christmas holiday. Its red berries and green leaves have become the colors of Christmas. Holly grows in most parts of the world, so you should have no trouble finding a variety that is right for your landscape.

The Mythology Surrounding Holly

The Romans used holly to honor Saturn, their god of agriculture. They celebrated him during their Saturnalia festivals, which took place near the time of the winter solstice. The Romans wove holly branches into wreaths, which were given as gifts to be worn on the head.

In Great Britain, holly was associated with the winter solstice in the myth of the twins, the Oak King and the Holly King. The Oak King reigned as long as the oak leaves remained on the trees but when they fell, the green of the Holly King was revealed through the bare oak branches. Druids wore holly wreaths during their solstice ceremonies in honor of the Holly King.

Other inhabitants of Great Britain known as the Celts brought sprigs of holly into their homes in the winter in the belief that they sheltered woodland fairies.

With the coming of Christianity, people were unwilling to give up their holly associations with the winter solstice so they used it to celebrate Christmas. To fit the Christian beliefs, the sharp points of the leaves were said to represent the Crown of Thorns worn by Jesus and the red berries symbolized drops of blood like that which Jesus shed to redeem believers of their sins.

In heraldry, holly is the symbol for truth.

Yellow Holly Berries
Yellow Holly Berries | Source

How to Grow Holly

The Ilex (holly) family is found all over the world, on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. They grow in habitats ranging from temperate to tropical. Depending on the variety, they can be grown in zones 3 through 11. The holly that is traditionally associated with the Christmas season is native to Great Britain. Most hollies are evergreen. There are some hollies that are deciduous which means that they lose their leaves in the fall, Most of those hollies are found in North America.

Hollies are shrubs that range in size from 6 feet to more than 70 feet making it easy to find one suited to your landscape. The smaller varieties can be used for foundation plantings. The larger ones make excellent hedges. Hollies prefer full sun (6 to 8 hours daily), but can tolerate a little shade. All types prefer acidic soil.

Hollies are dioecious, meaning that the plants are either male or female. If you want your female holly to produce berries, there must a male holly within 40 feet. Most hollies sport red berries, but some have yellow berries. All berries are poisonous to humans and can make you very ill if you eat them. Birds love to eat holly berries. The seeds pass through them undigested and are spread around the area through bird excrement.

If you want to create a bird friendly environment in your yard, plant hollies. You will attract wild turkeys, cedar waxwings, thrushes, blackbirds, goldfinches, bobwhites and mourning doves. The holly berries are too hard for the birds to eat in the summer and fall, but after a few frosts, they soften up and provide a wonderful winter food source when food is difficult for them to find. Evergreen hollies also provide protection during winter storms. Birds shelter in the shrubs, protected from wind and predators.

How to Prune Holly

Pruning can be done to give your holly an attractive shape. You should do your pruning in the late winter when the shrubs are dormant to ensure maximum flower production which, if there is a male shrub close enough, will result in a bumper crop of berries. Hollies can withstand a hard pruning or rejuvenation pruning and make excellent topiaries.

How to Grow Holly From Seed

Holly is a little tricky to grow from seed. It needs to be both warm stratified and cold stratified. Stratification is a technique to fool the seeds into thinking that winter has passed.

Harvest some berries and then soak them for 24 hours to soften them enough to remove the seeds. Soak the seeds alone for another 12 hours to soften the seed coat. Holly seeds have a hard seed coat so that the seeds survive the trip through birds’ digestive tracks.

Now wrap the seeds in some moist sphagnum moss and place the bundle in a plastic bag. Store the bag in a warm place between 68⁰F and 86⁰F for 60 days. This mimics the passing of a growing season. Holly seed does not germinate immediately in the wild.

After 60 days, place the bag in your refrigerator for 60 to 90 days to mimic winter. You should keep the bags in your refrigerator for a shorter period if you live in a warmer growing zone with a short winter. For gardeners living in northern areas with longer winters, you will want to keep the bag refrigerated for a longer period.

When you remove the bag from the refrigerator, take the bundle out and plant the seeds 3/8 inch deep in a container and keep them evenly moist. Be patient. It could take 2 to 3 years for the seeds to germinate.

Hollies are known as plants with four season interest thanks to their evergreen glossy leaves and brightly colored berries. Birds also appreciate hollies, so they can be used when creating a wildlife friendly landscape. And, of course, we all appreciate holly at holiday time.

© 2014 Caren White


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    • OldRoses profile imageAUTHOR

      Caren White 

      5 years ago

      Colorfulone, hollies are so festive outdoors and indoors! Thank you for reading and commenting.

    • colorfulone profile image

      Susie Lehto 

      5 years ago from Minnesota

      I had not ever thought of growing Holly at home. This is interesting to read, I learn a lot. There's so much more to these plants than Christmas décor.

    • OldRoses profile imageAUTHOR

      Caren White 

      5 years ago

      Teaches, it's so fascinating how plant symbolism changes over time. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      5 years ago

      I love the way holly looks. I make cookies each Christmas to represent this pretty flowering bush. Thanks for the education, glad it is now a better symbol of life.

    • OldRoses profile imageAUTHOR

      Caren White 

      5 years ago

      AliciaC, how fortunate for you to have wild holly near your home! I don't believe that I've ever seen any. Thank you for reading and commenting.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 

      5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for sharing this interesting hub. Holly is one of my favourite plants. I don't have any in my garden, but there are several patches of wild holly with beautiful berries growing near my home. I enjoyed reading about the relationship between holly and birds.

    • OldRoses profile imageAUTHOR

      Caren White 

      5 years ago

      Faith Reaper, have you considered using a net like those used on fruit trees and berry bushes? That way, you can harvest what you need and leave the rest for wildlife. Thank you for reading, voting, pinning and tweeting!

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 

      5 years ago from southern USA

      I love holly, and so glad to see berries on mine this year. Last year, I went out to cut some to put in arrangements in my home at Christmas, and there were no berries! However, I found out then that certain birds/animals love to eat them. They must have swarmed by hedge of holly bushes last year.

      Wonderful hub about a lovely plant.

      Up ++ tweeting and pinning


    • OldRoses profile imageAUTHOR

      Caren White 

      5 years ago

      So glad that you found it helpful, RTalloni. I've found a few volunteer hollies in my yard also. Thank you for reading and commenting.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Thanks for posting this info. I have a young volunteer holly that I'm considering transplanting into a corner and letting it grow for the birds (and for privacy). Your post is helpful.


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