Christmas Holly: History, Winter Solstice

At Winter Solstice, "Oak King" Supplants "Holly King"

Blue Princess holly produces a lot of berries (image) for me. Blue Prince is the male.
Blue Princess holly is a prolific berry-producer in my landscaping. David Beaulieu

Christmas holly and the approach of the winter holiday season don't hold the same meaning for everyone. For those of us keenly aware of the cycle of the seasons, the approach of Yuletide means the winter solstice is coming. In the snowy North, the winter solstice is the day on which the rest of the year pivots for lovers of landscaping and gardening.

"Things have to get worse before they can get better." Those of us in northern climes who enjoy seeing plants growing outside understand the wisdom behind this observation, when autumn draws to a close and the winter solstice approaches.

On the one hand, with each passing day of autumn we are robbed of more and more daylight. On the other hand, we know that, when the winter solstice does arrive, we'll turn the corner: the shortest day will have been reached, and from then on we can only gain daylight -- imperceptibly, to be sure, but also inexorably.

Ancient peoples, who spent more time outdoors than we do, were acutely aware of this annual ebb and flow of daylight, the two poles of which are the winter solstice and its summer counterpart. For the Celts, what we know as Christmas holly trees had a place in their rituals marking these two poles, each of which indicate when the sun is at its greatest distance from the equator. Here are the essential facts about the summer and winter solstice:

  • In the Northern Hemisphere the summer version occurs approximately on June 21, when the sun is in the zenith at the tropic of Cancer.
  • The North's winter solstice occurs around December 21, when the sun is over the tropic of Capricorn.
  • The summer event is the longest day of the year (most daylight hours).
  • The winter solstice is the shortest (fewest daylight hours).

These two critical junctures of the year's progress figure prominently in the magic and mythologies of many ancient peoples throughout history.

Again, in Celtic mythology the two are strongly linked to holly. Sprigs of the plant were worn in the hair during the mistletoe rituals performed by the priests of the Celts, the Druids, at the summer and winter solstice observances. The pointy leaves of holly were thought to afford magical protection against evil spirits. Holly sprigs were also brought into their dwellings during the cold-weather months in the belief that they afforded shelter to the fairies, those tiny spirits of the forest. [Source: Mara Freeman.]

In Celtic mythology the "Oak King" and the "Holly King" were twins, pitted against each other in a never-ending fight for supremacy. Oak trees, sacred to the Celts, are deciduous, while the English holly (Ilex aquifolium) native to their lands is evergreen. As cold weather approached, the Celts marveled at how the evergreen holly trees, hidden amongst the leafy oaks the rest of the year, now stood out prominently on an otherwise barren landscape. The Holly King had won out, as it were, as the incarnations of his twin brother had shed all their leaves and stood naked in defeat.

But by the time the winter solstice arrives, the tide has turned: the Oak King's flow in power is the Holly King's ebb. The deciduous twin takes his first baby steps towards re-establishing his supremacy. The Oak King's supremacy won't reach its zenith until midsummer, when the oaks will be in full leaf again. At which point, it is now the Holly King who will be riding the new wave. The evergreen twin lies the foundation in the summer heat for a reign that will culminate in the winter solstice. Thus ironically, whenever either king reaches the height of his dominance, at that very time he is doomed to be supplanted. Which is why we daylight-cravers have reason to be of good cheer as the winter solstice approaches: at our darkest hour, time will soon again be on our side....

For the Romans, "Holly was used to honor Saturn, god of agriculture, during their Saturnalia festival held near the time of the winter solstice. The Romans gave one another holly wreaths, carried it in processions, and decked images of Saturn with it," according to the Kentucky Cooperative Extension (the Saturnalia was the festival upon which the Christmas holiday was directly modeled). Evergreens such as Christmas holly were adopted by common Christians as a Christmas decoration, in spite of protests from Church Fathers such as Tertullian. A tiny flicker of this age-old controversy still burns today, as I discuss in my article on the History of Christmas Tree Decorating.

In Christian folklore the prickly leaves of Christmas holly trees came to be associated with Jesus' crown of thorns, while their berries represented the drops of blood shed for humanity's salvation. This symbolism can be found, for example, in the Christmas carol, "The Holly and the Ivy". Christian folklore also identified Christmas holly wood as the wood used to build Jesus' holy cross. In fact, some scholars think that the word, "holly" is simply a corruption of "holy," although there is no general consensus on this point.

But what there is a general consensus on is the diversity and versatility of Christmas holly trees, which is the subject of Page 2....

As noted on Page 1, holly plants are a diverse lot, being "one of the few genera that can be grown in all 50 states" in the U.S., as Andrew Bunting, curator of the Scott Arboretum at Swarthmore College, writes. There are hundreds of species, distributed amongst all the continents except for Australia and Antarctica. The plants come in all sizes, ranging from spreading dwarf shrubs 6" in height to trees 70' tall.

Their shapes vary from rounded to pyramidal to columnar.

Landscaping enthusiasts use this versatile plant in a number of different ways. Holly shrubs are attractive in foundation plantings or as borders for gardening plots. Holly trees (such as the Nellie Stevens variety, displayed in the picture) and the taller holly shrubs can be used as privacy screen hedges to screen out traffic or neighbors, or as striking accent plants on a lawn.

An example of an intermediate-sized holly is "Little Red" Holly (Ilex x 'Little Red'). Little Red's dense growth and compact nature (5' x 5') make it useful for privacy screen hedges in areas where taller hedges are not desirable. This evergreen produces attractive red berries and has a moderate growth rate. Little Red can be grown in full sun or partial shade, and it likes well-drained soil with an acidic pH. Cold hardy to zone 6. As broadleaf evergreens, hollies make ideal privacy screens around pools -- no leaves or needles to clean up.

Holly trees and shrubs are sometimes deciduous, but more often evergreen. One holly that is deciduous is winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata). Another characteristic that sets winterberry holly apart from the hollies with which we are most familiar is its tolerance of a variety of growing conditions.

For, while most holly cultivars require well-drained soil, winterberry holly will perform just fine in either well-drained soil or wet soil. Winterberry holly loses its foliage before Christmas, but its nakedness is a landscaping virtue, not a vice: with no leaves to obstruct the view, the red berries for which we grow the plant take center stage.

The hollies with which we are most familiar, due to their striking evergreen foliage used in Christmas displays, are English holly (Ilex aquifolium) and American holly (Ilex opaca). Some varieties of English holly plants grow quite tall, so be careful what you buy. Ilex aquifolium 'Ferox Argentea' reaches the moderate height of 15', with a spread of 8'-10'. It grows in zones 6-9.

American holly plants are native to the Southeastern U.S. and most of the U.S. states on the Atlantic Coast. The USDA Forest Service, establishing the northern terminus of American holly plant's range, remarks that the Pilgrims noted Ilex opaca was present in Massachusetts when they landed in 1620.

An example of American holly plants is Ilex opaca 'Mac's Prince,' zones 5-9. It reaches a height of 15'-30', with a spread of 10'-20'.

All holly trees and shrubs are dioecious, as I discuss in greater detail in my article on Blue Princess holly. Landscapers need to plant a male plant within 30'- 40' of females in order for the latter to yield berries. Hollies prefer to grow in acidic soils, which is why in nature they do so well in oak forests (the "Oak King" and "Holly King," discussed on the prior page, have more in common than just their eternal war with one another). Holly trees and shrubs, depending on the variety, can be grown in zones 3-11. Check with a local nursery for the cultivar(s) suited to your area.

To give your holly a shape of your own choosing, prune back the tips of the current season's growth in late autumn or winter. If you have an old holly plant on your landscape which you wish to rejuvenate, Bunting presents a tip on pruning holly shrubs, as follows:

For rejuvenation pruning on holly, Bunting recommends a method called "hat racking." Specifically, he advises that you trim back branches by 1/2 to 3/4 toward the end of winter. The reason the method is named "hat racking," according to Bunting, is that what you're left with after this cutting will have such sparse foliage that it will resemble a hat rack. When spring arrives, however, the plant will begin to fill in again with leaves; in two to three years, the plant will be covered in leaves once more. "Hat racking," concludes Bunting, "will result in a plant much reduced in size, but still full of foliage."

Holly is prized in Christmas decorations, and adds visual interest to a color-starved northern landscape. But also reports medicinal uses for holly. Herbalists traditionally used holly leaves to treat fever and other ailments. "The berries possess totally different qualities to [sic] the leaves, being violently emetic and purgative, a very few occasioning excessive vomiting soon after they are swallowed."

Bird watchers take note: several bird species are attracted to holly shrubs, including thrushes and blackbirds. According to the USDA Forest Service, holly shrubs are also consumed in winter by the following species:

  • wild turkeys
  • cedar waxwings
  • mourning doves
  • goldfinches
  • bobwhites

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