Caught by the River

The Long, Long Life of Trees: Holly

24th December 2016

A seasonal extract from The Long, Long Life of Trees by Fiona Stafford:

The holly has been admired for its resilient qualities as long as there have been human beings with the capacity to record their views. The Ice Age survivor was celebrated by the Romans, who linked it to the old earth god Saturn, renowned for his command of the dark season. The ancient celebration of Saturnalia took place in December, around the winter solstice, when the days were short and the parties long. As other trees fade into mere skeletal forms, the holly, still covered in waxy green leaves which lock up water for the long, frozen, winter months, seemed ever more vigorous in comparison. Holly branches – bold, glossy and berry-bedecked – were brought indoors to brighten hearts and hearths. The holly tree is the Lord of Misrule, rebellious and ready for life, despite winter’s worst. The legacy of this ebullient festival survived, of course, into Christian tradition, though Saturn’s bold, pagan club and triumphal wreath were gradually intertwined with Christ’s bloody crown of thorns and the promise of everlasting life. The plant’s Anglo-Saxon name, hollin, fused easily with holiness and holidays to make it seem just the tree for celebrating Christmas.

As a consequence, the holly tree has the unenviable distinction of seeming unseasonal for eleven and a half months of the year. Though one of the shiniest evergreen trees, with its sleek, waxy, light-catching foliage, it remains largely invisible to most of us except during that fortnight in December, when suddenly it is everywhere. Undeterred by the pincushion leaves, we like to poke the scarlet berries around pictures and door-frames or to strew the emerald sprigs across windowsills. The holly’s tenacity is evident as the gathered sprays retain their gloss even after days and days without water. If left undisturbed, a sprig of holly will eventually dry out, fading a little to a pale, olive green, but still losing none of its needle-sharpness. In profile, dried holly looks rather like a crocodile, just at the point when it is opening those deadly jaws. In spite of this, we determinedly welcome this tree into our homes each year and display the leaves on our front doors as a cheery greeting to visitors. The construction of a holly wreath does require a certain dogged perseverance, as the holly, furiously resistant to being forced into a circular frame, fights back with sharp defiance. Given the number of evergreen trees, it is odd that the prickliest of all has retained its sway over the festive season. But it is a very stubborn tree.

‘The Long, Long Life of Trees’ is available here in the Caught by the River shop.