CHRISTMAS OFFER Subscribe to Derbyshire Life today CLICK HERE

Roly Smith: The tradition of decorating homes with holly at Christmas

PUBLISHED: 13:59 03 December 2014 | UPDATED: 13:59 03 December 2014

Holly - (Ilex aquifolium)

Holly - (Ilex aquifolium)


Out and about with Roly Smith...

Not long to go now before the Big Day, and many people have already ‘decked their halls with boughs of holly,’ in the words of the popular carol, first published in 1881 and sung to a 16th century Welsh tune.

The bright scarlet berries of the holly (Ilex aquifolium) brighten up many houses, and indeed woodlands, in the depths of winter, so it’s no surprise to find that it has attracted more than its share of folklore and customs.

The link between Christ’s crown of thorns and the blood-red berries of the holly has an obvious Christian resonance, but holly had played an important role in the Old Religion before that.

The custom of bringing evergreen boughs of holly indoors to decorate houses and barns in midwinter is a custom which goes way back to pre-Christian times. The barbed leaves and scarlet berries of holly were seen as a powerful fertility symbol, and a charm against witchcraft and goblins.

It was thought to be a plant of lightning and eternal life, and trees were often planted outside cottages because they were thought to bring good luck and protection from storm, fire and the Evil Eye. They also had medicinal properties. In some parts of Derbyshire, painful winter chilblains were relieved by beating with a holly spray – ‘to let the bad blood out.’

There is a still a widely-respected tradition of not taking down the holly and other Christmas decorations before Twelfth Night. But the date used to be Candlemas in early February – the old Celtic festival of Imbolc – which was celebrated in pre-Christian Europe at about the same time of year.

The number of placenames based on the word holly in the Peak District and Derbyshire indicates the importance which was locally lent to the plant. The Old English for holly was holegn, and places like Hollington, between Ashbourne and Derby, and the numerous farms and houses known as The Hollins or The Hollies, Hollingreave or Holly Grove, all provide examples. Hollin Clough, just above the Derwent Dam and leading up to Derwent Edge, means ‘the rocky valley with holly trees.’

Being such a distinctive and evergreen tree, it was often retained as a boundary marker when hedges were cut. Walkers may notice how often they seem to grow next to stiles, perhaps assisting in their location and indicating the path ahead.

Despite their prickly leaves (incidentally, only the lower leaves, where animals usually graze, are thorny), holly boughs were often cut as fodder for sheep and cattle. Holly leaves have one of the highest calorific contents of any tree browsed by animals, and they are also very rich in nutrients.

Martin Spray, author of an historical survey of the use of holly boughs as a source of cattle food, believes the practice was widespread up until the 18th century. ‘It seems to have been particularly prominent on the grits and sandstone of the Pennine foothills, roughly in the triangle formed by Derby, Leeds and Manchester.’

Spray also recorded a conspicuous concentration in the same area of ‘hollin’ and ‘holly’ place names – and even an abundance of the same words as family surnames in telephone directories.

Our youngest granddaughter was also called Holly – and she was surely the best Christmas present of all.


Welcome , please leave your message below.

Optional - JPG files only
Optional - MP3 files only
Optional - 3GP, AVI, MOV, MPG or WMV files

Please log in to leave a comment and share your views with other Derbyshire Life and Countryside visitors.

We enable people to post comments with the aim of encouraging open debate.

Only people who register and sign up to our terms and conditions can post comments. These terms and conditions explain our house rules and legal guidelines.

Comments are not edited by Derbyshire Life and Countryside staff prior to publication but may be automatically filtered.

If you have a complaint about a comment please contact us by clicking on the Report This Comment button next to the comment.

Not a member yet?

Register to create your own unique Derbyshire Life and Countryside account for free.

Signing up is free, quick and easy and offers you the chance to add comments, personalise the site with local information picked just for you, and more.

Sign up now

More from Out & About

A ten-minute drive from the western edge of Sheffield brings thrill-seekers to a Derbyshire valley where outdoor activities are thriving.

Read more

Andrew Griffiths meets Jim Dixon, the former Chief Executive Officer of the Peak District National Park.

Read more

This walk offers a dance with the Dove and a meander by the Manifold, whilst along the way passing a church, castle remains, country houses and a hollow way

Read more

With winter on the horizon, trees glow with colour, migratory birds arrive and house spiders set off in search of a mate

Read more

Ann Hodgkin investigates a case of the sincerest form of flattery… or industrial espionage!

Read more

Derbyshire Wildlife Trust’s vision is of landscapes rich in wildlife, valued by everyone. They will achieve this 
by pursuing their mission of creating Living Landscapes. Here Julia Gow, the White Peak Reserve Officer at Derbyshire Wildlife Trust tells us about the reserve above the River Wye

Read more

Nigel Powlson visits Sudbury where a shopping courtyard is attracting even more visitors to this quintessential English village

Read more

If you’re walking in the Peak District, the chances are that you could encounter a reservoir at some point during your ramble. There are dozens of resevoirs dotted around all corners of the national park, we pick some of our favourite walks from our archive.

Read more
Peak District

A five-year Heritage Lottery-funded scheme, launched in 2010, was designed to encourage the restoration and conservation of the distinctive landscape character of a large area of north-east Derbyshire.

Read more

Enjoy the wonder of woodland in our glorious Derwent Valley on this park and ride special.

Read more

Paul Hobson reveals some of the fascinating wildlife there is to be found in this month of transition

Read more

From far away constellations to gas clouds, our night skies are bursting with natural wonders – if you know where to look... Viv Micklefield goes stargazing in Derbyshire

Read more

Derbyshire Wildlife Trust works across six Living Landscapes with 46 nature reserves to ensure there is wildlife and wild places for everyone. Reserve officer Sam Willis tells us about one of his favourite places – Ladybower Wood Nature Reserve

Read more

A multi-million pound makeover attracts more leading brands to one of the UK’s biggest shopping destinations

Read more

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to the following newsletters:

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Our Privacy Policy

Subscribe or buy a mag today

Topics of Interest

Local Business Directory

Property Search