The Krampus Kalendar: H is for HOLLY, and I is for IVY

Sunday 8 December 2019

Holly and ivy have become so inextricably connected with Christmas, mainly because both are evergreens, like the fir tree and the boughs used to form the traditional Christmas wreath and, as such, date back to pagan times.

The Romans believed both holly and ivy brought good luck and so decorated their homes with the plants during the festival of Saturnalia. They would also give sprigs of the plants to friends and loved ones as good luck tokens.

In time, the Church took these traditional elements of the extant winter festivals and gave them a Christian twist, adding their own symbolism. The sharp leaves of the holly came to represent Christ’s crown of thorns, while the red berries were drops of his blood. The nascent Church was so successful in modifying the symbolism of the holly that in Scandinavia it is still known as the ‘Christ-thorn’.

Other legends were invented, linking Christ to the holly. One stated that there had been a holly tree growing outside the stable where the infant Jesus was born. The tree was bare of berries, hungry birds having eaten them all. However, as soon as Jesus was born the tree grew new buds again, then flowers and finally berries – all in the space of that one night.

Another tale had it that the shepherds who visited the infant Christ left behind a lamb as a gift, corralling it within a pen of holly branches. The lamb had other ideas, however, and forced its way out of the enclosure to return to the hill pastures with its mother. In doing so, the poor thing tore its coat, the sharp prickles of the holly drawing blood from the creature. It being a cold night, the drops of blood froze becoming the holly’s red berries.

To the Medieval mind, the holly and the ivy had other important characteristics. The holly represented the male – with its tough, woody stems and sharp prickles – whilst the ivy was supposed to be female – clinging and feeble. People believed that whichever plant was brought into the house first on Christmas Eve (as it was unlucky to bring either into your home before then) would be in charge for the following year. If the holly was brought in first, the man would be the boss, but if the ivy entered before the holly, the woman would be head of the household.

Holly was the more important of the two plants. It was supposed to protect a home from lightning, and so was often planted outside the front door. And it had even more miraculous powers; its red berries were able to detect evil and so the holly could offer protection against witches. Medieval men also believed it had powers like those purported to be possessed by certain deodorant sprays today; carrying the leaves or berries about his person supposedly made a young man irresistible to the ladies.

And of course, in the carol ‘The Holly and the Ivy’, the point is made none-too-subtly that the plant that represents the male is the most important! However, there were a number of carols written in the fifteenth century that had a different emphasis, although the ivy still often came off the worst.

Both the holly and the ivy make an appearance in 'TWAS - The Krampus Night Before Christmas, and may also crop up in 'TWAS - The Roleplaying Game Before Christmas, which is currently funding on Kickstarter.


To find out more about the festive season and its many traditions, order your copy of the Chrismologist's Christmas Explained: Robins, Kings and Brussel Sprouts today!

The book is also available in the United States as Christmas Miscellany: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Christmas.



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