So, I sat down to write a post about holly and ivy… And then realised I did that last year… In my defence, I was very ill and very starved so my memories of that period are a bit vague…
That being said, I have got new books and new sources and so on since so I thought I would revisit this seasonal topic anyway, possibly focusing more on the mistletoe instead.
Holly is a plant of lightening, eternal life and the White Goddess (before it was co-opted by Christianity). The berries, being scarlet, could be used to repel witches and Pliny the Elder went a step further and said that holly trees around the house prevent sorcery. Self seeded holly plants would bring good luck as well as protection from storms and fires.
There are two kinds of holly, the male prickly version and the female smoother type, and according to a Derbyshire tradition, they should be brought into the home at the same time. This would ensure that the year ahead would be prosperous. If you accidentally brought the male holly in first, the master of the house would have absolute rule in the year ahead and if you brought the female holly in first then the mistress would be in charge. Despite this, there is also a tradition that says that holly shouldn’t be brought indoors at all.
Whether you decorate your house with holly or not, you shouldn’t harm a holly tree. One explanation is that holly was the tree on which Jesus was crucified and so hurting the tree would lead to his blood and tears flowing out of the wound. Another is that holly sprang from Christ’s footsteps. Holly is also said to be representative of his crown of thorns, the red berries his blood and the white flowers a reminder of purity and his virgin birth.
Like holly, ivy has a mixed reputation. During the 19th and 20th century, some people considered it unlucky and wouldn’t bring it into the house at any point in the year, possibly because ivy is associated with graveyards.
“Anyone who wishes to dream of the devil; should pin four ivy-leaves to the corners of his pillow”
– Cornish Folklore, The Penguin Guide to Superstitions of Britain and Ireland
Other uses for ivy in divination include popping a leaf in your pocket before you leave the home and the first male you see will be your future husband. Ivy can also be used to foretell death.
Ivy leaves have been recommended as a cure for various ills including corns which could be treated by wrapping the leaf around the corn. Cups made out of ivy wood were thought to cure whooping cough.
Ivy was said to be sacred to Dionysus and Bacchus, gods of wine, and thus was hung outside inns to show that good wine could be found there.
“In ancient Greece it was called cissos because, according to a mythological legend it was named after the nymph Cissos, who, at a feast of the gods, danced with such joy and abandon before Dionysus that she fell dead from exhaustion at his feet. Dionysus was so moved by her performance and untimely death, that he turned her body into ivy, a plant which graciously and joyfully entwines and embraces everything near it.”
– Folklore and Symbolism of flowers, Plants and Trees
Ivy growing on a home would protect the inhabitants from witchcraft although if it starts to wither, watch out for disaster, infertility, infidelity or financial problems.
Ivy has become associated with love and fertility, possibly as it clings to all it touches…
And talking of love… I don’t mean to put you off kissing under the mistletoe but…
The toe of mistletoe meant twig and mistel may be connected to the Germanic word for dung… Possibly because a common belief was that mistletoe didn’t grow from seeds but instead was the result of bird droppings, because it only grows high in trees and never on the ground.
In Scandinavia, we have stories of the gods and the much loved Balder began to have nightmares. In order to try and ease his fears, his mum, Frigg, stepped in:
“Goddess Frigg made all swear never to harm Balder the god of light, but she overlooked the insignificant mistletoe plant, deeming it too young to swear the oath. Loki, spirit of evil, gave a mistletoe dart to Hod, the blind god, who, unseeing, threw it and killed Balder.”
– Discovering the Folklore of Plants
The idea of kissing under mistletoe in Britain at Christmas was first reported in 1813 and may well be the result of misunderstanding that dates back to Pliny the Elder in AD77… With this in mind I’m not going to look at the idea that it has links with paganism and druidy, this is covered in detail elsewhere and may be part of convoluted information initiated by Pliny… That said, one article I read (I accidentally deleted the link) suggested the shape of mistletoe was reflective of a certain piece of anatomy and thus might be the reason for the link with sexuality and love…
In terms of superstitions and traditions, there are limited associations beyond kissing, however:
“It is considered very unlucky for a house unless some mistletoe is brought in at Christmas.”
– Derbyshire tradition recorded 1871
“If you want to have extra good luck to your dairy, give your bunch of mistletoe to the first cow that calves after New Year’s Day.”
– Yorkshire tradition recorded 1866
“If you hang up mistletoe at Christmas, your house will never be struck by lightening.”
– Staffordshire tradition recorded 1891
In Herefordshire, mistletoe was thought to be associated with dark magic and wouldn’t have been taken into the home lightly or used to encourage kissing. So think carefully the next time you find yourself under a sprig with someone else…
- The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland
- Discovering the Folklore of Plants, Margaret Baker
- Folklore and Symbolism of flowers, Plants and Trees, Ernst and Johanna Lehner
- Folklore Thursday