The Christmas tree may well be the star of the festive show we stage in our homes at this time of year, but the humble holly shrub is the support act that stands the test of time.
And, like most Irish homes, holly – in various forms – always played a part in our house at this time of year.
Agriland decided to look at the tradition of decorating with holly by visiting the experts at Ratoath Garden Centre – see the video below.
As far back as I can remember, a holly wreath hung from our front door for most of the month of December, and into January. Several old and rusty thumb-tack holes bore witness to that fact.
Fashioned into a circle, the fresh, green, prickly foliage, dotted with vibrant red berries, heralded the start of Christmas proper.
It was one of the first decorations to go up and one of the last to come down.
Did you know?
According to Niall MacCoitir, author of Irish Trees: Myths, Legends and Folklore the name ‘holly’ comes from the word ‘holy’.
He explains: “The red berries were supposed to symbolise Christ’s drops of blood, and the prickly leaves were supposed to symbolise the crown of thorns.”
Whether my mother was aware of the religious symbolism or not, the holly wreath was also a favourite choice for the family grave.
Simple and understated, it added some festive cheer – but not too much – and made the visit a little less gloomy.
An emotional connection
There is no denying that Christmas in Ireland is synonymous with holly. As John Lord from Ratoath Garden Centre commented, it is something that goes way back in time for us and our families.
“There is an emotional aspect to holly,” he observed.
As I recall the presence of holly in my family home – and in that of my grandmother’s – over the years, I can fully relate to this now.
“Before we had all these Christmas decorations that we buy in, that were mass produced, people would get holly, and a bit of ivy, and put it around their pictures. It is something that goes back to our ancestors, it goes back a long, long way,” said John.
Did you know?
On the farm, holly would have been displayed in barns and stables to give the place a festive air.
These days, I can only see my family home, my mother, and all those memories, in my mind’s eye – but the emotional connection that exists with the holly helps brings them to life.
Beyond the front door
Holly’s annual Christmas visit didn’t stop at the front door of our house. It was warmly welcomed inside, in the form of sprigs – here, there, everywhere.
And in our house, it wasn’t just for pictures.
There was a sprig on the kitchen shelf above the fridge; one at the base of the sacred heart light; one on the old telephone table; another on top of that ‘years-old’ aerial shot of the house and yard.
These sprigs – plucked from bushes and ditches near my house, or from around my grandmother’s farm – carried the festive theme from the front door to the inside.
They sprinkled pops of nature’s pallet around the porch, the kitchen, and the sitting room.
Over the years – just in case we had, God forbid, a berry-less holly season – the fake sprigs were called upon too.
With maleable, wiry stems, these sprigs were the height of practicality and functionality. There was nothing my mother couldn’t wind them around or attach them to.
This fake plastic foliage – not so environmentally friendly by today’s standards – was highly valued by my mother though, and I still have some of it among my own box of decorations to this day.
Now, I highly value it but, for different reasons.
It might not be my first choice of decorative foliage, but the nostalgia and the memories it evokes is enough to keep it with me.
According to Niall MacCoitir, “there is a reality” to holly because it comes from nature and this is something that resonates with me.
As we navigate a world where trees and hedgerows are valued more and more – as are making environmentally friendly decisions about what we eat and how we produce it – this real gift from Mother Nature is as good as it gets.