Friday, December 17, 2010

Berries and Thorns

As daylight hours dwindle and winter holidays approach, I’m eyeing with eager anticipation a healthy wild specimen of Ilex aquifolium growing at the edge of our yard. An invasive species, this introduced European ornamental is an aggressive plant that can grow 35 feet tall and out-competes native species by casting a deep shadow and creating a thick, prickly barrier. Although toxic to humans, some birds do eat the berries and when the stones are passed they often grow wherever they land. The tree behind our fence has quietly been thriving for several years and is now about 8 feet tall. I had planned to cut it down, but now I cannot - it is just too beautiful. With glossy, deep green leaves and brilliant scarlet berries, it’s most striking in winter. The ancient Roman naturalist, Pliny the Elder (AD 23 - 79) first described Holly under the Latin name Aquifolius or needle leaf - how right he was!

Many superstitions surround Holly. The Druids believed it was sacred and stayed green all year because it was favored by the sun. Believing it to be inhabited by forest spirits, in winter they decorated their huts with the evergreen so that the spirits might have shelter from the weather. In Medieval Europe, it was placed around homes to offer protection from thunder and lightening. Berries and leaves were used to ward off witchcraft and the evil eye. Considered a man’s plant, it was believed to bring good luck and protection to men, while ivy brought the same to women. Thus, the “Holly and the Ivy.” Early day Romans gave gifts of Holly to their friends during the festival of Saturnalia as good luck charms and protection against evil. Early Christians adopted the custom, but because of all these superstitions, at one time they were forbidden to decorate with this plant, especially during Saturnalia. The custom of Christmas decorations is deeply rooted; in old church calendars we find Christmas Eve marked templa exornantur - “churches are decked”.

In some areas, it is still thought that whoever brings the first sprig of Christmas Holly into the home will wear the pants that year. In Wales, family quarrels are thought to occur if it is brought into the house before Christmas Eve. In Germany, it is unlucky to step on berries; a severe winter will occur if berries are plentiful.

Holly is one of the trees said to be the tree of Christ’s cross. One early Christian legend says that the trees of the forest refused the defilement of the cross, splintering into tiny pieces at the touch of the ax. Only Holly allowed itself to be cut and formed into a cross. Because Christ was crucified on it and his Crown of Thorns was formed of its leaves, it has been reduced to the status of a “scrub” tree. Erroneously thought to have once been white, the berries are said to have become red with the blood of Christ. Indeed, one of its folk names is “Christ’s Thorn”. Another legend says that Holly first appeared under the footsteps of Christ, as He walked the earth; according to another, it first grew leaves in winter to hide the Holy family from Herod’s soldiers. It has been an evergreen ever since, as a token of Christ’s gratitude.

Because it spreads rapidly and crowds out native plants, perhaps I will eliminate this shrub in the spring. But, whatever its history, legends, and unsavory habits,  Holly is a most welcome Christmas decoration in our home. After all, how many can simply walk out the back door and cut it? How grateful I am that it brightens the winter landscape. Thanks, perhaps, to a passing bird - and the good Lord, of course!

...The holly bears a berry
As red as any blood,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To do poor sinners good.

The holly bears a prickle
As sharp as any thorn
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
On Christmas day in the morn...

Old English Christmas Carol

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