The Holly and the Ivy

1st December 2021

Of all the trees that are in the wood , the holly bears the Crown.

But should the holly be king of the forest or is there a strong case for the ivy being top dog? Do we get it wrong when we sing it each Christmas?

Holly and ivy have been part of our celebrations for thousands of years. In pagan times, holly was a fertility symbol and something that kept the witches and goblins at bay. It was then absorbed by Christianity, the new religion to keep the devil away.

In Celtic mythology, it was a symbol of peace and goodwill. Both Celtic and Norse legends thought it provided protection from thunder, as holly is resistant to lightning! The Romans used holly to decorate in their homes to celebrate Saturnalia, the midwinter festival. In medieval times holly was believed to be a male plant and ivy was female. An old Midlands saying claims whichever is brought into the house first indicates whether husband or wife rules the home the next year!

Ivy is an amazing plant, not killing the tree but using it as a support. It has its place in myths too. A piece of ivy tied to the Church door, protects it from lightning – tie some to your front door if worried. Some florists still slip a piece of ivy in a wedding bouquet for good luck. Ivy is widely used as a Christmas decoration. Many a Christmas mantlepiece is draped with long fronds alongside the sprigs of holly even today.

So holly or ivy – which should wear the crown?  The prickly shiny leaves of holly offer protection to birds and insects, providing essential food for birds in winter. Deer enjoy the leaves too. Under the tree, deep dry leaves are used by hedgehogs and small mammals for hibernation.

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As winter approaches, ivy is an essential food source for insects and birds, also providing warm shelter for insects, birds, bats and small mammals. Ivy berries are  full of fat, making  them a nutritious food source for thrushes, black caps, wood pigeons and blackbirds, as well as migratory redwings. Ivy is also vital to insects before they hibernate. Bees, hoverflies and wasps gorge on the nectar and pollen in readiness for the long sleep. It’s also important for the larvae of butterflies and moths.

So which is the best tree in the wood. I think we can find a good compromise using the old belief that holly is male and ivy is female. We can have both King and Queen. It is clear that in winter both holly and ivy offer nature a host of different ways of protecting our wildlife. The medieval carol earns its place in your carol service – so sing out with gusto this Christmas.

Anni Holden Calver
Trustee of Caring for God’s Acre