As advent approaches we decorate out homes and churches with holly, ivy and mistletoe;
each has an interesting history.
Holly: the Romans gave sprigs of holly to their friends as presents during the feast
of Saturnalia which falls in winter. Pliny the Elder, who was killed during the eruption
of Vesuvius, wrote in his natural history that if a holly tree grew near a house
it would deflect lightening and evil sprits. Holly was called ‘holy tree’ as the
red berries were symbolic of Christ’s blood and the thorns represented His suffering.
Ivy: Bacchus, who was the God of Wine, is represented with a wreath of ivy leaves
around his head. This was supposed to ward off the effects of drinking too much wine.
It was also reported to be a symbol of fertility and the Greeks gave a wreath of
ivy when girls married. When ivy grows up a house, as it often does, many thought
it would protect their home from evil.
Mistletoe: Pliny, in his book of natural history, also wrote about the magical rites
the druids performed. They thought mistletoe, which grew up the bark of mainly oak
trees, was very potent and lovingly cut it with special sickles and caught it to
stop it falling on the ground and getting damaged. Freya was the Norse goddess of
love and was associated with fertility, which is probably why kissing under the mistletoe
became a custom as she also protected mistletoe fiercely.