Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Unholy holly

We deck the halls with boughs of it, we name Christmas-born girls after it, and – if we're like Burl Ives – we even get jolly over it. But why do we love holly at Christmastide?

Decorating with green boughs, wreaths, and garlands was a practice of Saturnalia, a holiday season of the ancient Romans that fell around this time of year. The custom was picked up by early Christians in their efforts to woo pagans to their new religion. They made greens a Christian symbol, pointing out that Christ made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem over paths strewn with palms.

However, holly may be more practical than symbolic. Evergreens are an attractive ornament. They are available in the cold of winter and last long after picking. The holly, with its shiny leaves and red berries, is particularly decorative.

While its name may seem associated with holy, holly comes from the Old English word for pricker or arrow. And some of holly customs have a sharp side. As they festooned their parlors centuries ago, English families would chant appropriate – if not elegant – carols. As the holly went up, their voices rang out a song that included:

Whosoever against the holly do cry
In a rope shall be hung full high.
Allelujah!

So watch what you cry, and, in the tradition of Mr. Ives, have a holly, jolly holiday – be it Christmas, Hanukah, or Kwanzaa.

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