Here, in the depths of December, the Holly Tree beckons me from outside my bedroom window
The bright red berries covering this beautiful evergreen provide essential food and shelter for the birds that populate the area. In this seemingly barren season, a walk in the forest quickly reveals the bounty of Nature and just how vital and alive the Earth is at this time of year. Bright red Hawthorne’s, Rose hips, Arbutus berries and Holly berries offer themselves as nutrient dense foods for animals.
Red, the colour symbolic of fire, heat, passion, blood, and vitality, is found prominently in Nature at this time of year when we (and other animals) most need what it has to offer. Red foods typically contain constituents that are blood building, promote circulation and are full of cell protective antioxidants.
There are literally hundreds of different species of Holly (Ilex spp.) around the world. Most of the plant parts can be toxic. Depending on the species, the toxicity can range from somewhat toxic to very toxic so please do your research (and get a second opinion) before you even consider using this herb internally.
The leaves of this plant vary from spineless, like the one pictured above, or full of spines like the classic Ilex aquifolium.
Holly can be brought into the home, laid on your alter or other sacred place, or taken orally as a Flower Essence to help transform the places in our lives we’re “prickly” and encourages us to improve our reaction to the world. The flower essence in particular can be helpful to transform hatred, anger, or aggressive behaviour that is out of proportion to the life situation. I’ve used this flower essence successfully on animals (as well as humans) who are resenting the addition of a new member of the family. Individuals needing this remedy are often oversensitive and fearful and feel the world is out to get them. Holly can help transform hostility, jealousy, envy, aggression or bitterness.
Most species of Ilex are high in caffeine, a mind-altering alkaloid that many of us familiarize ourselves with every morning with a cup of coffee. However, indigenous cultures traditionally only reserved mind-altering beverages in ceremony, setting a specific intent with which they would call upon the use of herbs that encouraged an expansion of perceptional fields.
Many species of this plant are used for shamanic journeying. Ilex guayusa is used in the mixture for Ayahuasca; its leaves have the highest known caffeine content of any plant known so far. Probably the most famous Ilex plant is Mate (Ilex paraguariensis) now enjoyed all over the Western world in most coffee shops, but once upon a time it was only used in ceremony by the cultures that populated its native land. The common thread connecting the use of this species is they help illuminate the places where we are stuck or unresolved with our demons, and facilitate the return of our inner light.
‘Deck the halls with boughs of Holly’
The Druids held the Holly tree as especially sacred, advising people to bring the plant into their homes as it was considered a good omen. As an evergreen, it symbolized the tenacity of life, and the bringer of light even when surrounded by death. Traditionally the Holly tree was considered protective against harmful energies, respiratory diseases, angry faeries, and thunder and lightning. Protection against lightning has been verified, as the tiny spikes on the leaves act like miniature lightening conductors giving the tree immunity.
Gifts of Holly were given during the ancient pagan Winter Solstice Rituals that took place around December 22nd. These rituals celebrated the return of the Sun God, in some parts of Europe he was represented as the legendary Oak King. The Oak King would battle the Holly King (sometimes called the Lord of Darkness because he ruled the darker half of the year) who ruled between Summer Solstice to Winter Solstice; while the Oak King ruled between Winter to Summer — each of the Kings ruling each half of the year. These rituals held such power to the “commoners” of Europe that when the Emperor Constantine forced the people to convert to the new religion we call Christianity, he recognised how essential these rituals were to the people so he created new names and meanings to every ancient pagan holiday so to permit the people to continue celebrating their ancient rituals — blanketed with a new Christian meaning. As several theologians point out, there isn’t sufficient evidence that Jesus was born on December 25th, the tradition of celebrating the “Return of the Son” really comes from the ancient pagan “Return of the S.U.N”.
So if you find your own inner light and dark battling within, perhaps consider if the bright Holly is the plant ally for you at this time of year. Just as the season, from one perspective, is known to be dark and barren, by connecting to Nature we can quickly see the richness of the seasons offerings might just be at our front door.