Holly & Mistletoe Lore

December 24, 2015 – Kenosha News

Holly branchQuestion: I am enjoying a Victorian advent calendar that informationally states that the holly wreath could only be carried into the house by a male, since the berries appear only on male plants. I thought this has to be a gross error. So is it the female holly that has the berries or some unusual plant physiology that put berries on the male? M.P.

Answer: You are correct and the calendar is wrong. Holly is dioecious, meaning male flowers and female flowers are borne on separate plants. Fruits, or in this case berries, will be on the female plant.

Holly has been connected with midwinter observances for thousands of years. Ancient Romans associated holly with Saturn, the god of agriculture and time. Their midwinter festival of Saturnalia featured holly garlands and wreaths.

Holly was extremely important to the Druids, who believed holly provided a winter home for wood spirits. They often paired holly, symbolizing masculine and strong, with ivy, for feminine and clinging, as a way to keep evil spirits away. – This is probably where the idea of males carrying holly into the home came from. I wonder if ivy could only be carried by women. – At one time people believed it was good luck to have more holly than ivy in decorations because a predominance of ivy would give women too superiority in the household.

“Deck the Halls” and “Holly and Ivy” tell of the importance of holly in Christmas celebrations. Christians altered holly’s symbolism into a reminder of the crucifixion and resurrection. The sharp points on holly leaves represent the crown of thorns and red berries are reminders of Jesus’s blood.

Another evergreen plant, mistletoe, has been associated with numerous myths and beliefs through the ages. Medieval Christians believed the crucifix was made of mistletoe wood, so the plant was banned from growing like a normal plant and condemned to be a parasite of trees. Conversely, Celts highly valued mistletoe. Celtic priests cut mistletoe out of trees at winter solstice. The mistletoe was hung over Celtic doorways to protect the home’s inhabitants from fairies. Kissing under the mistletoe can be traced to the Norse legend of the gods, Balder and Frigga. When Balder was mortally wounded by an arrow made of mistletoe, Frigga’s tears brought him back to life. Her tear drops changed into white mistletoe berries and the plant was transformed into a symbol of health.


Kenosha County UW-Extension LogoBarb Larson is horticulture educator for the Kenosha County University of Wisconsin Extension. She holds a master’s of science in horticulture from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. If you have a plant or gardening question, email her at barbara.larson@kenoshacounty.org or call 262-857-1942.