Holly guards the door to the inner realms. It is associated with Lammas.
Holly’s qualities include courage, war-like instinct, male sexuality and male energy.
Just as the Holly and Oak kings battled at Yule, they again battle for supremacy now; but this time it is the Holly King, God of the Waning year, who will win.
Winter Solstice traditions also include Robin Redbreast, who lives in the birch, and captures the Wren, who lives in the holly (or in some traditions in ivy), on Dec. 26, Wren’s Day.
In the Ogham, it was stated that the Holly was “best in the fight,” since it helped balance both the positive and negative aspects of the self, thus revealing a new direction. It was believed to restore lost energy, bestowing the strength needed to continue toward a resolution. Despite its prickly leaves (which afford protection to the tree during Winter), the Holly offered empathy and understanding within its branches and was often associated with goodwill and love…virtues of certain Gods and Godesses. For this reason, it was frequently planted near homes for protection and to ward off evil, psychic attacks and demons. When Celtic chieftains chose a successor, that successor was crowned with a Holly wreath and branches of the tree were carried by Celtic men for good luck. The Holly was said to ease thoughts of jealousy and mistrust while providing protection from evil spirits. Also reputed to tame wild beasts, babies were bathed in water from the leaves in order to protect them from harm.
To the Druids, the Holly was regarded as a strong and protective herb, guarding against evil spirits, short-tempered Elementals, poisons, thunder and lightning. The notion of protection against lightning is based upon the fact that the spikes of Holly leaves act as miniature conductors, granting immunity to the tree. It was also believed to be especially favored by the Sun. As a magickal herb, the Holly bestowed wisdom and courage and was considered to be useful in dream magick. According to lore, if a young girl gathered nine leaves from the “she-holly” at midnight on a Friday and then tied them into a three-cornered handkerchief using nine knots, she might dream of her future husband by placing the handkerchief beneath her pillow. A variation of this spell dictated that the leaves had to be collected in silence and bound in a white cloth…again using nine knots. This, when placed under the pillow, was said to make dreams come true. It was once thought that if the smooth leaves of the “she-holly” were brought into the house first during Yule, then the wife would rule the household during the approaching year. If the “he-holly” with its prickly leaves were brought in first, then the husband would rule. It was also once believed that if a man carried a Holly leaf or berry upon his person, he would become attractive to women. One old custom associated with the Holly was to place pieces of candle on the leaves, light the candles and then float them in a tub of water. Each person would then make a wish upon their leaf. If the candle remained lit, then the wish was said to come true. According to Pliny, Holly wood when thrown in the direction of any animal would compel that animal to obey. Medicinally, the Holly was used during meditation to calm the mind and body.
The Holly (also known as “Bat’s Wings” and “Christ’s Thorn” among others) was thought to repel enemies and warriors would carry cudgels and fashion spear shafts made of its wood. As a symbol of good luck and good fortune, the Holly was the evergreen twin of the Oak in Celtic mythology and was often referred to by the name “Kerm-Oak.” As the Oak ruled the light part of the year, thus did the Holly rule the dark. The Holly also represented the eternal, ever-green aspects of Mother Earth. With Ivy and Mistletoe, the Holly was regarded as a potent life symbol by virtue of its year-long foliage and Winter fruits. Holly wood was also formerly one of the three timbers used in the construction of chariot wheel shafts. The ancient name for the Holly was “Holm” and, with the coming of Christianity, it became known as the Holy Tree…symbolic of the Crown of Thorns.
The Holly was particularly sacred to the Druids who instructed folk to take it into their homes during Winter in order to provide shelter for the Elves and Faeries during cold weather. It was said that to keep even one leaf inside after Imbolc (a MidWinter celebration also known as Candlemas) would bring about misfortune. In Ancient Rome, gifts of Holly were given during the Saturnalia celebration and the use of its branches as Yule decorations was common to many cultures. The image of the Holly King is familiar to most people and has been personified as the Ghost of Christmas Present in several celluloid versions of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” By tradition, a Holly branch should never be cut from the tree but instead, must be pulled off. It is considered unlucky to cut or burn Holly, but it is thought to be lucky to hang a small branch remaining from the Yule celebrations outside the house. This is said to protect against lightning and ensure good fortune.
The Holly deity is Danu (also known as Dana or Anu), the Goddess after whom the Tuatha De Danaan were named and the Mother Goddess of Irish mythology. Her divine children (which included the Dagda, Dian Cecht, Ogma, Llyr and many others) were the Gods and Goddesses who ruled Ireland prior to the arrival of the Milesians. Danu was also usually considered to be the equivalent of the Welsh Goddess, Don.
The Holly is also sacred to Lugh, Irish God of Medicine, and to Habondia, the Celtic Goddess of Abundance, Plenty and Prosperity, who was demoted to a “mere witch” in medieval English folklore. The animals connected to Holly are the Cat and the Unicorn.
The Cat – Many Celtic legends pictured the Cat as a ferocious and evil creature. However, that may have been because Cats were untamed during the time of the Druids. It was a potent totem animal of several clans and Caithness, named after the Clan of the Catti, is one example. In Irish lore, Finn mac Cumhail was said to have fought a clan of “cat-headed” people…most probably Celts who wore cat skins on their helmets. The Cat was thought to be a strong protector, especially when facing a confrontational situation.
The Unicorn – A mythic animal with the body of a white horse, the legs of an antelope and the tail of a lion which sported a single horn upon its forhead, the Unicorn was a symbol of purity, strength and supreme magickal power. It taught that every action is creation. Thus, every day should be made to count. It also aided in understanding the relationship between physical and spiritual realities. In Celtic lore, the Unicorn represented a Horse sporting a horn that resembled a Flaming Spear…another of the symbols associated with the Holly. The symbol of the Flaming Spear was connected to the month of Tanist because the Celtic “T” was shaped like a barbed spear. Both the Holly and the Oak were symbolic of the Summer Solstice when the White Horse of the Oak became the Unicorn of the Holly in transformation.