Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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Adding a splash of vibrant green and red color to any winter garden, holly is so deeply ingrained in Christmas imagery that any search for “holly” leads you straight to Christmas images, before any botanical depiction of the plant. Yet, holly is a fascinating plant that deserves to be better known. Here, kids can find out fun facts about holly as well as how to make a Tudor Christmas bough with holly.
This article is part of the Outdoors Advent Calendar 2017 series, in which I open up a new Advent Calendar door with a story on the outdoors and nature for kids every day until Xmas.
The first time that I visited London, I walked around Hampstead Heath and outside of Kenwood House, a stately house on top of a hill, I stumbled upon my first holly tree. Tall and prickly, it was laden with red berries all over. It was beautiful, just like in the books I’d read. Internally, I thought, “wow, Christmas,” even tough I grew up in the tropics where hollies only ever appear on TV programs.
The truth is, holly is about more tied to Christmas than any other plant. Christmas puddings are adorned with real or fake holly leaves and berries. Christmas wreaths usually have a few holly leaves and berries in them. Victorians made holly the unmistakable Christmas ornament on cards. Why is that?
Like a lot of other natural symbols related to Christmas, such as rosehips, robins and cardinals, holly has red berries and the color red is associated frequently with Christmas. Unlike a lot of other symbols, holly is an evergreen and sports two colors, bright red and dark green. That makes holly extra special. In Christian tradition, its prickly leaves represent the crown of thorns that Jesus wore when he was crucified and the berries are the drops of blood that were shed by Jesus because of the thorns. In Scandinavia, it is known as the Christ Thorn.
In pagan rituals, for the druids, holly symbolised fire. At every summer’s end, the Holly King fought and won a battle with the Oak King for the rulership of the year, and reigned supreme over the dark season. Using it at winter solstice symbolised the victory of the sun over darkness in the birth of the Holly King.
There’s more to holly than legends, though.
You would never guess it, but…
Christmas was the greatest festival celebrated by the Tudors, a feast lasting 12 days–hence the 12 days of Christmas. The Tudors did not have Christmas trees, although they were around in 16th century. The decorations they would have used would have been natural ever greens like holly, ivy, yew, mistletoe, box and laurel. They would not have decorated their houses until Christmas eve as it was thought to be unlucky to do it before.
As a result, a great ball of evergreens and holly berries hung in cottages or halls, decorated with ribbons, paper roses, apples and oranges. Three small dolls, representing Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus, were arranged in it, often in a manger scene. It was called the kissing ball, kissing bough or kissing bunch. Anyone who called at the house during the Christmas season showed that they brought only goodwill with them, by a symbolic embrace under this Holy Bough. These decorations would have remained in place in homes until February, 2nd, which is Candlemas (Groundhog Day), marking the end of the Christmas season in the church calendar.
This video shows how to make a Tudor Christmas bough at home, making two circles of holly tied with gardening wire and intertwining them together so as to create a magnificent ball of greenery in which to hang a pear.
The steps and materials are all on the English Heritage website here.
Decorating your home with natural ornaments over the holidays is a wonderful way to stay connected with nature when days are short and cold, making going outside more challenging than the rest of the year.
The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown.