'Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly'

This beloved carol, believed to be originally of Welsh origin, had already been around for quite a while when Mozart used it for a piano duet in the 18th century. You can read more about its interesting history in William Studwell's "A Christmas Carol Reader."

Even older than the song is the actual tradition of using holly to ring in the Christmas season. In fact, it may have even been used in Ireland during the time of the winter solstice long before the advent of Christianity. But for many, many centuries now, the Irish have celebrated Christmas and holly has been a part of that celebration.

Here's how it went in the olden days, according to Bridget Haggerty's "An Irish Christmas - Then and Now." In preparation for Christmas the women cleaned the inside of their homes, the men cleaned the outside, and the children's job was to "scout the countryside for appropriate decorations to be cut and brought home on Christmas Eve." Holly, cuileann in Gaelic (pronounced "qwill-un"), was considered one of the best finds because of its colorful berries. After the "gathering of the greens", sprigs of these glossy leaves and clusters of red berries graced mantles, doorways and other places of the Irish home at Christmastime. According to some sources, the plant came to symbolize the Savior: The spiky holly leaves were the crown of thorns and the red berries were drops of blood from Jesus' face and head.

Lucky children in a few particular counties in the south of Ireland might be able to add mistletoe, or drualas (pronounced "dhroo-ah-lus") to their collection of greenery. Mistletoe also had a long-standing role in Celtic culture, symbolizing peace and fertility.

Many Irish emigrants took the tradition of decorating with holly and mistletoe to their new countries, and that may be why many of us hang holly and mistletoe at Christmastime today.

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Tags: Christmas, Folklore, Genealogy, History of Ireland

Comment by Bit Devine on December 11, 2014 at 11:12am

Pagans believed that the deciduous Sacred Oak and the evergreen Holly were twins.

When the Oak Tree had shed all its leaves in winter the Holly was said to be its incarnation, and brought beauty to the dull winter days.

Holly was thought to hold special properties, since it was "neither tree 'nor bush". Old stories tell us that when winter came the druids advised the people to take Holly into their homes to shelter the elves and fairies who could join mortals at this time without causing them harm, but these stories also tell of a warning, to make sure and remove the Holly entirely before the eve of Imbolc, for to leave just one leaf in the house would cause misfortune.

Comment by DJ Kelly on December 11, 2014 at 11:37pm

Some of us still believe this, Bit.

Comment by Bit Devine on December 12, 2014 at 9:44am

I am one of those who do, DJ

Holly is often intertwined with Ivy, as Ivy is seen as the female counterpart...

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