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common name for members of the Aquifoliaceae, a family of widely distributed trees and shrubs, most numerous in Central and South America. The evergreen English holly (Ilex aquifolium), the common holly of Europe, cultivated also in North America, is closely associated with Christmas tradition. The American holly (I. opaca), native to the E United States, is very similar; both are so popular for their decorative spiny leaves and red berries that they are becoming scarce. The hard white wood of both species is used for cabinetmaking and related purposes; it is close grained and polishes easily. Matématé
, yerba maté
, or Paraguay tea,
evergreen tree (Ilex paraguariensis) of the family Aquifoliaceae (holly family). From ancient times Native Americans and now millions of Argentines and others in South America have made a tea (also
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, Yerba maté, or Paraguay tea (I. paraguariensis) is very important commercially in S South America as the source of a popular tealike beverage. Guayusa (I. guayusa) is similarly important in Ecuador. Teas and medicinal preparations are also made from some other members of the family, e.g., yaupon and winterberry, or feverbush, both of E North America. Wild or mountain holly (Nemopanthus mucronata) is a deciduous shrub of E North America. Many species of this family are cultivated as ornamentals. Holly is classified in the division MagnoliophytaMagnoliophyta
, division of the plant kingdom consisting of those organisms commonly called the flowering plants, or angiosperms. The angiosperms have leaves, stems, and roots, and vascular, or conducting, tissue (xylem and phloem).
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, class Magnoliopsida, order Celastrales, family Aquifoliaceae.
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Holly springs up all around us at Christmas time. It ornaments today's Christmas cards, wreaths, wrapping paper, and other Christmas decorations. Although holly serves as a very contemporary symbol of the season, folklorists trace holly's association with Christmas back to ancient times.

Ancient Beliefs and Customs

Evergreen plants, such as holly, ivy, and pine, stay green all year round. For many ancient peoples, this special property converted these plants into seasonal reminders of the promise of rebirth or eternal life. Many writers believe that the pagan peoples of northern Europe decorated their homes with greenery during their winter festival, Yule. Perhaps they wished to honor and imitate holly's triumph over the dark and the cold, for the plant not only remains green during the winter but also bears bright red fruit during this harsh season. Further south, the Romans also decorated their homes with greenery during their winter festival, Saturnalia. In addition, friends exchanged sprigs of holly and other evergreens as tokens of friendship and good wishes for the upcoming new year.

Christianity and the Significance of Holly

Some folklorists think that holly and ivy represented the male and female principles in nature to the pagan peoples of northern Europe. These old beliefs may have lingered on in song and folklore long after Christianity conquered the northern lands. A good number of English songs from the Middle Ages and Renaissance depict a rivalry between holly and ivy in which holly represents masculinity and ivy, femininity. In early Christian times, the Church resisted the pagan European custom of making seasonal decorations out of winter greenery. The sixth-century second Council of Braga forbade Christians the use of green boughs in home decoration. As time went on, however, Christianity adopted the holly and ivy of pagan winter celebrations, molding their significance to fit Christian beliefs. One authority states that early northern European Christians interpreted holly as a symbol of the Virgin Mary's love for God. Its spiky leaves and blood-red berries also served to remind Christians that Jesus would end his days wearing a crown of thorns. The words to the Christmas carol titled "The Holly and the Ivy" illustrate similar Christian reinterpretations of these seasonal symbols. After the older beliefs about the plant had faded, some Christian authorities suspected that the word "holly" must be related to the word "holy," a belief that would support their interpretations of its connection with the Christmas season. They were mistaken. The modern English word "holly" comes from the older terms for the plant - hollin, holin, and holme - and before that, from the Anglo-Saxon word for holly, holegn.

Folklore and Customs

Old British folklore attributed a variety of special powers to holly. In medieval times, practitioners of folk medicine used holly to treat many conditions, including fever, rheumatism, gout, and asthma. (Holly berries are poisonous, however.) Picking holly on Christmas Day could enhance its medicinal properties. In addition, holly warded off evil spirits. A medieval traveler who had lost his way might shelter under a holly tree for protection against unseen dangers. Placed on doors and around windowsills, holly's spiny leaves would snag any evil spirit that tried to enter the house. One custom advised unmarried women to place a sprig of holly beside their beds on Christmas Eve as protection against witches or goblins. A sprig of holly inside the house might also shield the householders from fire and storms. Holly that had been used in church decorations was believed to be especially powerful. It could confer luck, peace, or happiness, according to English folk beliefs, and protect against lightning, according to German folk beliefs.

Traces of the old association with masculinity and the battle of the sexes lingered on in holly lore. English folklore deemed prickly holly "male" and non-prickly holly "female." (Holly plants are indeed sexed, but the sex difference does not manifest itself in this way). If male holly was brought into the house first, the husband would rule during the upcoming year, and if female holly entered first, the wife would rule. Several hundred years ago, English folk custom still connected competing figures known as the "holly boy" and the "ivy girl" with a number of wintertime observances. During this same period, the Welsh observed "Holming Day" on December 26 with another customary battle of the sexes in which men hit women's bare arms with holly branches (see also St. Stephen's Day). According to folk belief, holly dealt good luck to men, while ivy granted good luck to women.

Careless dealings with holly could turn good luck into bad, however. Some believed that cutting holly at any other time than Christmas brought bad luck. Bringing holly into the house for Christmas decorations also required special care. Some thought it unlucky to bring it in before Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. The withered greens must also be disposed of respectfully. Some believed that they should be burned. Others thought that burning them drew bad luck and that feeding them to cattle might preserve good luck. Still others felt they should simply be left to decay on their own. Sometimes a sprig of holly was saved for the following year, when it was used to light the fire under the next year's Christmas pudding (see also Plum Pudding).

Holly, often alongside its mate, ivy, served as an important Christmas symbol during the nineteenth century. The Victorians wove it into kissing boughs, greenery swags, and other seasonal home adornments, and embellished many a Christmas card with its image. Today, some Americans still hang a wreath of holly on their front doors at Christmas. In Britain many people place similar wreaths on the graves of the family dead at this time of year. In addition, holly continues to trim contemporary holiday decorations, symbolizing for many the mirth of the season. The old yet still popular Christmas carol, "Deck the Halls," expresses this connection between holly and revelry.

Further Reading

Leach, Maria, ed. Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythol-ogy, and Legend. New York: Harper and Row, 1984. Segall, Barbara. The Holly and the Ivy. New York: Clarkson Potter, 1991.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003
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The famous Christmas plant (Ilex aquifolium) is a tree that grows up to 100 feet high (30m) Stays green year round. Pointy spiny leaves with red or orange berries, greenish white berries. Although some consider the berries poisonous (could cause vomiting), others have chewed them as a laxative, for indigestion and colic. Leaf tea has been used for flu, pneumonia, colds or externally for skin problems. Proceed cautiously.
Edible Plant Guide © 2012 Markus Rothkranz

What does it mean when you dream about holly?

The symbol of Christmas cheer decorating the fireplace hearth, holly represents memories of friends, family, and the nurturing feelings associated with childhood and the holiday season.

The Dream Encyclopedia, Second Edition © 2009 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.


The common name for the trees and shrubs composing the genus Ilex ; distinguished by spiny leaves and small berries.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


symbol of Christmas. [Flower Symbolism: Flora Symbolica, 174; Kunz, 331
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. any tree or shrub of the genus Ilex, such as the Eurasian I. aquifolium, having bright red berries and shiny evergreen leaves with prickly edges
2. branches of any of these trees, used for Christmas decorations
3. holly oak another name for holm oak See also sea holly


Buddy. real name Charles Harden Holley. 1936--59, US rock-and-roll singer, guitarist, and songwriter. His hits (all 1956--59) include "That'll be the Day", "Maybe Baby", "Peggy Sue", "Oh, Boy", "Think it over", and "It doesn't Matter anymore"
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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B Hollies represent the continuation of life during the winter months
Hollies are sensitive to over-fertilization and each year need only one application of a slow-release granular fertilizer designed for acid-loving plants.
Severe winter conditions, and sometimes soil deficiencies, may cause physiological problems such as sunscald and purple spot on the leaves of evergreen hollies. Winds blowing the spiny leaves together causes punctures in the foliage.
While male plants do have good-looking foliage, they don't produce berries, so their principal use is pollination of female hollies, most of which won't make berries without fertilization.
You can transplant the rooted hollies into pots or the ground in summer.
Most Yanpon hollies are ideal for dense hedges and are drought and salt tolerant, with varieties that have red or yellow berries.
For most hollies, only the female plant provides berries, with flowers in late spring to early summer, and red berries from autumn to March, which birds, including robins, cedar waxwings, cardinals, northern mockingbirds and goldfinches, love to eat.
They have 17 hollies for sate including Weeping Yaupon and shrub Yaupon.