The holly and the ivy,When they are both full grown,Of all the trees that are in the wood,The holly bears the crown.
–From “The Holly and the Ivy,” a traditional carol
We’re deep in the Yuletide season, which means not only can you expect an episode of carols and stories from us soon, but that you’re almost guaranteed to hear at least one or two carols mentioning holly, ivy, or both (in fairness, it’s probably a lot better to keep your elf-ears tuned in for those topics than to be hyper-vigilant in your efforts to avoid Wham!ageddon, right?)
The above-mentioned carol, “The Holly and the Ivy,” has been around for at least two hundred years, but likely dates back even further as a folk song, deriving from medieval traditions in England of associating the plants with various winter festivities and customs (see, for example, KIng Henry VIII’s carol “Green Groweth the Holly“).
In North America, we have several species of holly that are native to our continents, but ivy is a different matter. Most of the “ivies” associated with the holiday season are things like English ivy, which are imports and can be very invasive and destructive if not controlled (similar vines like Japanese kudzu are notorious for the damage they do and their proliferation). If you are in North America and using holly and ivy, it might be worth thinking about picking a twining vine native to the continent, like Virginia creeper, especially if you’re planning to plant anything.
Holly has long been used to decorate for the winter holidays, including in Ancient Rome. Some stories claim that the Christian cross was originally made from holly, which is why its berries are often stained red like blood. Linda Raedisch tells of a hobgoblin named Charlie who haunted an inn in Somerset, England and liked to perch on a holly beam above the fire to warm his feet (when he wasn’t hiding all the dinnerware to annoy the guests). Raedisch also notes several important appearances of holly in the lore and literature of the UK. She points out that in the classic Arthurian tale Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the titular swain appears at Arthur’s court to issue his challenge bearing an ax in one hand and a sprig of holly in the other. The Blue Hag of Scotland hides her magical staff under a holly bush (which prevents grass from growing beneath holly bushes in general). And of course, when the ghosts of Christmas Past and Present appear to Ebeneezer Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, they both bear holly as well.
While holly is often thought to be a good plant to bring in for the winter holidays, ivy is thought to bring ill fortune if carried indoors for winter festivities. Ivy is also associated with cemeteries and graves, as well as the wheel of St. Catherine, and thus, spinners and fiber workers (although it should be pointed out that St. Catherine’s wheel is NOT a spinning wheel, but a torture device…however it’s nice to see the imagery repurposed for better things). Some English lore says that ivy brought into a sick room will prevent recovery, and that taking ivy leaves from off of a church wall will doom the one who picks them to illness.
According to Judika Illes, medieval Europeans believed holly wood had the power to protect against wild animals. While the spell she references involves throwing a piece of holly at an aggressive beast, a contemporary alternative might be to take a small disk of holly wood and inscribe (paint, carve, or burn) it with the name of an animal friend or protector (a companion pet from your life or even one that you know of from books or stories). When preparing it, speak to the animal friend you have in mind and ask them to intercede with any creature you encounter and grant you safe passage. Wear the disk as a necklace or bracelet when going into wild places (possibly consider adding a couple of small bells to the jewelry, as that will alert wild animals to your presence long before you see them, and thus ensure they skedaddle before you make contact…they are usually far more scared of you, after all, than you are of them).
Holly was also thought to be protective against evil spirits. Churches and cemeteries planted holly around their perimeters in England as a way to deter pesky spirits who would get caught on the prickly leaves (this may also have worked to discourage vandals and some wild animals as well). If you do decide to plant holly, bear in mind that it is best left to grow on its own. It is considered very bad luck to cut down a holly tree.
One of the main uses of holly and ivy is in love work. A holly charm recommended by Judika involves picking nine holly leaves at midnight on a Friday. Without speaking, wrap them in a white cloth (like a handkerchief) and put that under your pillow. You should dream of your true love before daybreak. Ivy can also be used to determine who your lover will be. A Scottish charm involves plucking an ivy leaf in secret (not from a church, please) and uttering the words “Ivy, ivy, I pluck the, In my bosom I lay thee; The first young man who speaks to me, Shall surely my true lover be.”
Men hoping to attract women should carry holly leaves, and women hoping to attract men should carry ivy (those hoping to attract their same gender would carry the plant that most corresponds with their attraction: to attract women carry holly, to attract men, ivy).
You can also use ivy to discern who is working against you by wrapping a candle in ivy and burning it. The identity of your foe will become clear (likely through dreams or other omens). Ivy can help determine future illness, too, as one New Year’s divinatory ritual involves laying leaves of ivy in water on New Year’s Eve, naming each leaf for a loved one, and leaving them there until Twelfth Night (January 6th). Any leaves that are still green indicate health for that person, while leaves with black spots or those that have shriveled up reveal who will suffer great illness in the year to come (it probably helps to mark each leaf in some way, as with a dot of nail polish, to ensure you know whose leaf is whose).
And both holly and ivy can be used for more severe spellwork, too. You can put a token from a target (such as their name, a photo, or even a bit of their hair) into a bottle with twists of ivy and sharp-pointed holly leaves. Fill the bottle with black ink and some swamp water or war water, then seal it and bury it upside down. I can even imagine doing a rather dark and wicked little “sinner’s tree” of your enemies by taking a branch of holly and hanging little glass ornaments filled with your enemies’ names, holly leaves, and ivy, with a bit of black ink (they make fillable ones you can buy at craft stores, or you could just save a few small spice bottles). Tell them they will spend the next year in perdition and torment if they do not change their ways, then burn the tree and the contents of the bottles, and scatter the ashes at a crossroads or in running water.
Of course, if they *do* change their ways, you should probably put them on your “nice” list next year and perform an equally powerful blessing on their behalf.
Thanks for reading, and a Merry Yuletide to you!
- Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, & Celebrations of the World Dictionary, 3rd ed. Omnigraphics, Detroit: 2005.
- Illes, Judika. Encyclopedia of 5,000 Spells. Harper Collins, New York: 2009.
- Opie, Iona, and Moira Tatem. A Dictionary of Superstitions. Barnes & Noble Books, New York: 1989.
- Raedisch, Linda. The Old Magic of Christmas. Llewellyn Publications, Woodbury, MN: 2013.
- Santino, Jack. All Around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American Life. Univ. of Illinois Press, Chicago: 1995.