Completely predictable this month – it’s holly. And it’s just as well I took some local pictures well in advance, not only because the light levels are a bit grim as we crawl from St Lucy’s Day to the Shortest Day and the solstice, but also because the birds are already having a really good time stripping the trees and bushes of their berries. I was told (centuries ago) that berries being left on the trees is the sign of a hard winter to come, because the birds KNOW, and are holding back until things get really grim. If this is true, it suggests that the current ludicrously mild weather will continue …
So, the botany: European/English holly is Ilex aquifolium, so named by Linnaeus. This is peculiar on two counts: ilex is the Latin name for the holm oak (Quercus ilex), which is still quite often called ‘ilex’; aquifolium (which I had assumed was something to do with the way the leaves shed water, ‘aqua’) makes rather less sense that the Italian word for holly ‘agrifolio’, sharp-leaved (latin ‘acer, acris’)? ‘Holly’ itself is Germanic in origin, with cognates in everything from Old High German to Old Low Franconian. It is the only living member of the family Aquifoliaceae, and worldwide it has over 500 species.
Ilex aquifolium is native to western and southern Europe. Its berries are technically drupes, i.e. a hard stone (in this case six to ten stones) inside a fleshy coating. The trees are not self-fertile, so to get berries you need a male and female tree in reasonable proximity: however, the only way to determine the sex of a plant is to wait for it to flower, which may take anything from four to twelve years.
The seeds are spread via the digestive tracts of the birds (and rodents), and take up to three years to germinate. They are becoming a problem in the Pacific Northwest of America – seeds from commercially grown plantations are spreading into and engulfing the under-storey of the native woodlands. Interestingly, the leaves were used as a fodder crop before the widespread growth of turnips and other roots to see livestock through the winter. Unsurprisingly, the animals preferred the less prickly branches from the tops of the trees, and this may explain why many ancient stands of holly are relatively short.
There are of course many holly hybrids for gardeners – variegated, yellow-berried, unprickly, grey-green …
One of the earliest of these is Ilex altaclerensis (geddit?), bred in 1835 in the gardens of Highclere Castle, seat of the earls of Carnarvon (aka Downton Abbey).
And holly used to be the wood of choice for Highland bagpipes, until more exotic foreign options became available.
But the Christmas association – which goes a very long way back in Europe – is probably holly’s greatest claim to fame: the evergreen leaves and bright berries in midwinter must have been a universal symbol of the survival of life through winter long before Christianity adapted their symbolism to its own story. Holly appears in some of the oldest carols, of which the best known is ‘The Holly and the Ivy’.
William Henry Husk notes in his Songs of the Nativity (1864) that: ‘This carol appears to have nearly escaped the notice of collectors, as it has been reprinted by one alone, who states his copy to have been taken from “an old broadside, printed a century and a half since”, i.e. about 1710.’ (It is found in surviving broadsides from the early nineteenth century.)
It was at one time associated with Henry VIII, possibly because of confusion with a poem he did write, ‘Green groweth the holly’, a declaration of steadfast love apparently intended for Catharine of Aragon… It uses to the full the Christian symbolism of the tree’s attributes: pure white flowers for the Virgin, red berries for Christ’s blood, prickly leaves for the crown of thorns, and bark as bitter as the gall offered to the crucified Christ to drink. (The familiar tune, by the way, was published by Cecil Sharp, the doyen of folksong collectors, in 1911: he had heard it sung by Mrs Mary Clayton of Chipping Camden, Gloucestershire, in 1909.)
Other holly carols are more secular. In the prefatory note to ‘Holly and Ivy’, Husk notes the charges in churchwardens’ accounts from London parishes for Christmas greenery: ‘Paid for Holly and Ivye at Christmas, ii d.’, at St Martin Outwich in 1525. (The church, on the corner of Threadneedle Street and Bishopsgate, was demolished in 1874.) The carol has no religious context at all, but is a short battle for mastery between holly and ivy, as is ‘The Contest of the Ivy and the Holly’ – also quoted in Brand’s Observations on Popular Antiquities. Brand interprets this carol (‘from Henry IV’s time’) as indicating that holly was used to deck the insides of houses; ivy, with connotations of funerals and mourning, was left outside (though of course ivy was also used to indicate a brewer’s or vintner’s shop).
This apparent prohibition was ignored by George Wither (1588–1667), who wrote (in what Husk calls ‘this excellent and sprightly carol’): ‘So now is come our joyful’st feast / Let every man be jolly; / Each room with ivy leaves us drest, / And every post with holly.’
Another carol (from Poor Robin’s Almanac of 1695) which Husk borrows from Brand says that ‘With holly and ivy / So green and so gay, / We deck up our houses / As fresh as the day.’ There are several carols for Candlemas (2 February) which indicate that Christmas greenery must be taken down and burnt then, rather than on Twelfth Night (6 January).
The strangest carol offered by Husk is ‘Here comes holly’, from a fifteenth-century manuscript. It has ‘Alleluia’ as its refrain, but appears completely secular otherwise:
Here comes Holly that is so gent [gallant, pretty], / To please all men is his intent. / Alleluia.
But Lord and Lady of this hall, / Whosoever against Holly call. / Alleluia.
Whosoever against Holly do cry, / In a lepe [basket] he shall hang full high. / Alleluia.
Whosoever against Holly do sing, / He may weep and hands wring. / Alleluia!
On which cheerful note, a Happy Christmas to All!