In days of yore, when certain Europeans placed great emphasis on the symbolism associated with plants and animals, the year was divided into two parts: the waxing year, into which we pass on the Winter Solstice, is ruled by the Oak King; the waning half is ruled by the Holly King. (Photo from Wikimedia commons.)
As the song (circa 1710) says:
The Holly and the Ivy, now are both well grown;
Of all the trees that are in the wood, the Holly bears the crown.
The Holly (always symbolically male, though botanically coming in both flavors) is "best in the fight;" he wins the crown at Summer Solstice but rules only until displaced by Oak on December 21st. (The "boughs of holly" tradition predates our image of Victorian Christmases; the Romans used holly in similar fashion a millenium earlier for celebrations of Saturnalia, associated with December 17th.)
The Ivy is traditionally female, and her place in symbolism sheds a more sinister light on the festivities:
Holly stands in the hall, fair to behold:
Ivy stands without the door, she is full sore a cold.
Holly and his merry men, they dance and they sing,
Ivy and her maidens, they weep and they wring.
Ivy hath chapped fingers, she caught them from the cold,
So might they all have, aye, that with ivy hold.
Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be I wis;
Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is.
This sad story actually makes logical sense, in that Holly has been brought inside to decorate the mantel, while Ivy, being attached to the outer walls of our hypothetical English country house, must spend the winter outside.
Holly and Ivy Here and Now
Neither of these excellent plants of the British Isles escapes sinister implications on this side of the pond. English Ivy (Hedera helix) and English Holly (Ilex aquifolium) both can, and have, become invasive here in North America. Here one of the benefits of Colorado's harsh and droughty climate presents itself; neither species, thankfully, has escaped from cultivation in our fair state. Elsewhere it's not so comfortable: English Ivy is a designated noxious weed in Oregon and Washington, whose forests, coincidentally, provide most of our domestic holiday greens. (See another essay on the holiday harvest over at Small Wonders. Apparently I've long been interested in this topic.)
H. helix can grow to choke out other plants and create "ivy deserts" in the United States. State and county sponsored efforts are encouraging the destruction of ivy in forests of the Pacific Northwest and the Southern United States. Its sale or import is banned in Oregon. Ivy can easily escape from cultivated gardens and invade nearby parks, forests and other natural areas. Ivy can climb into the canopy of trees in such density that the trees fall over from the weight, a problem which does not normally occur in its native range. In its mature form, dense ivy can destroy habitat for native wildlife and creates large sections of solid ivy where no other plants can develop. —from Wikipedia.org.
English Holly is also plantae non grata in the Pacific Northwest, despite its commercial production there, which may well have been a source for the invasion. It is considered naturalized in many forests in our western tier of states, where it occurs in the westernmost counties, but hasn't spread in the eastern U.S. forests as ivy has, according to the USDA distribution records. It has not, so far, been listed as a noxious weed, though it is projected to change the composition of the Pacific Northwest forests in the decades ahead.
Household Decor—and More
It's not just about decking the halls to bring inside a little spirit of the forest at Christmas; in older days, the practice of using plants indoors was year-round, each with its season. This tradition supported not just comely decorations, but practical applications of sanitation and, no doubt, sanity in times when people were not in the habit of bathing regularly and often lived with their animals. In this critical role, plant use was known as strewing, and involved a wide variety of herbs and other species, as partially outlined below.
Candlemas Eve, by Robert Herrick, published 1648
(found online at The Hymns and Carols of Christmas)
Down with the rosemary and bays,
Down with the mistletow;
Instead of holly now upraise
The greener box for show.
The holly hitherto did sway,
Let box now domineer,
Until the dancing Easter day,
Or Easter's Eve appear.
Then youthful box which now hath grace
Your houses to renew,
Grown old, surrender must his place
Unto the crisped yew.
When yew is out, then birch comes in,
And many flowers beside,
Both of a fresh and fragrant kin,
To honour Whitsuntide.*
Green rushes then, and sweetest bents,
With cooler oaken boughs,
Come in for comly ornaments,
To readorn the house.
Thus times do shift;
Each thing his turn doth hold;
New things succeed,
As former things grow old.
* "Whitsuntide" is the Christian celebration of the seventh Sunday after Easter. This puts it more or less coincident (given Easter's variable date) with and apparently a replacement for the pagan celebration of May Eve/May Day, aka Beltane.
Obligatory botanical note: I'm going to go out on a limb (or bough) here, and try to put names to these plants, for those of us not conversant with the more common decorative and strewing herbs.
"The Greener Box": Buxus sempervirens, in the unappetizing Euphorbiaceae, is an easy one, and grows in Europe, the Orient, and temperate Asia. Given its toxic nature, unlike the rest, we'd perhaps count on this green primarily for decoration.
"The Crisped Yew": Taxus baccata occurs in north temperate Europe and Asia; in North America, substitute Pacific Yew (Taxus brevifolia).
"Birch" would most likely be Betula alba , which grows in Europe, No. Asia, and No. America, or in No. America, perhaps also Sweet Birch, B. lenta.
For "green rushes," we could use Sweet flag, Acorus calamus, a plant of north temperate regions, as is the Bulrush, Scirpus lacustris, both widely used for strewing.
"Bent": Agrostis stolonifera, perhaps, or others of the more than one hundred species of this grass. Pasture grasses and sometimes weeds, these would have been part of the straw commonly used as floor covering.
Perhaps not surprising is the fact that all of these mentioned have one other thing in common, in addition to this use. These species all come with an "L." after their names, signifying the Linnaean origin of their binomials.
Few of us have backyards that could sustain a year-round harvest of greens for strewing and freshening our houses; most likely, we also lack the time to harvest and redecorate seasonally. As the practice has faded, it seems our winter holiday decorations are the only remnant of a once wider traditional practice of bonding with plants. (At left: Burning The Christmas Greens, from Harper's Weekly, 1876.)
On this day [Candlemas] the Christmas ceremonies, which had lingered on after Twelfth-day, finally closed, and all traces of them were removed. The custom long prevailed, and there must be many still living who can remember the evergreens with which our churches were decorated at Christmas, remaining until Candlemas [February 2nd]. from William Henry Husk, Songs of the Nativity (1868)
Do we have, today, less need in our homes of the freshening effects of greens (not to mention the antimicrobial properties that were probably also a benefit)—or are we just now more inclined (or able) to get those benefits from a commercial product than from our backyards?