Holly was brought by the Romans to Britain and it was a popular Saturnalia gift. In Medieval times holly was often used to decorate the Wassail Cup. It was said to have originated with the 5th century legend of the beautiful Saxon Rowena, who toasted the health of the Brythonic King Vortigern with the words Wæs hael (your health!). In early times the Wassail would have been made with mead and spices but in Medieval times it resembled mulled wine.
If you are going a-wassailing this festive season then a bottle of Le Roc du Chateau Pellebouc £8.75 – (a saving of £3.30 on the recommended price at www.bordeaux-undiscovered.co.uk) would not go amiss. It's a beautifully balanced, gold medal winning wine. It has notes of spice, raspberries, damsons and blackcurrants and has a deep, intense purple colour.
The word holly is derived from the Saxon word 'holen' meaning holy and some say that the sharp leaves symbolized the crown of thorns and the red berries symbolized the blood of Christ. It is also said that holly wood was used to construct Christ's cross. One legend says that the berries the holly bore were once white but turned red in remembrance of Christ's blood, whilst the leaves became symbolic of everlasting life.
In olden days Holly was brought into the house variously to protect the home from malevolent faeries or to allow faeries to shelter in the home without friction between them and the human occupants. Whichever of prickly-leaved or smooth-leaved holly was brought into the house first dictated whether the husband or wife respectively were to rule the household for the coming year. (Good job we have both in the garden!)
Hollies were frequently left uncut in hedges when these were trimmed. A more arcane reason for this was to obstruct witches who were known to run along the tops of hedges, though more practically farmers used their distinctive evergreen shapes to establish lines of sight during winter ploughing. Apparently the Duke of Argyll even had a prospective road rerouted to avoid cutting down a distinctive old holly in 1861.
Holly trees were traditionally known for protection from lightning strikes, to which end they were planted near a house. In European mythology, holly was associated with thunder gods such as Thor and Taranis. We now know that the spines on the distinctively-shaped holly leaves can act as miniature lightning conductors, thereby protecting the tree and other nearby objects. Modern science occasionally catches up with an explanation for what may previously have been dismissed as superstitious lore!