Did you know that holly was the original Christmas tree? Long before the Victorians introduced the custom of decorating fir trees in our homes, holly was traditionally used to herald the arrival of the festive season.

Folklore tells us that, in pre-Victorian times, ‘Christmas trees’ meant holly bushes, and, although it was thought to bring bad luck to bring a whole tree into the house, adorning the home with sprigs of holly served to ward off evil spirits! In fact, the mythology surrounding holly goes back almost to the dawn of time…

An ancient symbol

With its bright green leaves and vivid red berries, in ancient times holly was seen as a colourful way to cheer up people during dreary winter days and remind them that spring was around the corner. Early Europeans used holly during their winter solstice celebrations, while the Romans employed it as decoration during a festival dedicated to Saturn, their god of agriculture. In both instances it signified the onset of a new growing season.

The Celts of the British Isles believed the Holly King ruled over winter, while their tradition of bringing holly boughs into the home still echoes at Christmas today, when holly wreaths are brought indoors to await the arrival of the winter elf king – Santa.

Christian beliefs

With the spread of Christianity, holly took on a new meaning, symbolising the crown of thorns worn by Christ during his crucifixion, while the red drop-like berries signified his blood. One Christian legend states that the berries had once been white, until touched by the blood of Jesus when a holly wreath served as his crown. Early Christians knew holly as Christ’s thorn and later, in a play on its spelling, as the Holy Tree.

An invaluable forest asset

Here at the Heart of England Forest holly trees can be found primarily in the more mature woodland, with the berries providing food for birds while the densely-packed branches are perfect for warm and secure winter roosts. However, these evocative trees will forever be synonymous with Christmas, their vibrant colours bringing to mind a time of celebration and maintaining traditions that stretch far back in time.

If you visit the forest and take away a few sprigs of holly, why not have a go at making a wreath (we’ve even provided some simple instructions!) that not only looks great but that offers a feeding station for birds. Hang it near a window and watch as the different species flutter in and enjoy a festive feast. Also, don’t forget, we’d love to see any photos so share your pictures on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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