The holly, dark green, made a resolute stand;
He is armed with many spear-points wounding the hand.
Despite its prickly leaves (which afford protection to the tree during Winter), the Holly offered empathy and understanding within its branches and was often associated with goodwill and love...virtues of certain Gods and Godesses. For this reason, it was frequently planted near homes for protection and to ward off evil, psychic attacks and demons.
When Celtic chieftains chose a successor, that successor was crowned with a Holly wreath and branches of the tree were carried by Celtic men for good luck. The Holly was said to ease thoughts of jealousy and mistrust while providing protection from evil spirits. Also reputed to tame wild beasts, babies were bathed in water from the leaves in order to protect them from harm.
The Holly (also known as "Bat's Wings" and "Christ's Thorn" among others) was thought to repel enemies and warriors would carry cudgels and fashion spear shafts made of its wood. Carrying a wand or walking stick made of holly wood will prevent you from falling victim to all hexes and bewitchments, according to occult folklore.
As a symbol of good luck and good fortune, the Holly was the evergreen twin of the Oak in Celtic mythology and was often referred to by the name "Kerm-Oak." As the Oak ruled the light part of the year, thus did the Holly rule the dark.
The Holly also represented the eternal, ever-green aspects of Mother Earth. With Ivy and Mistletoe, the Holly was regarded as a potent life symbol by virtue of its year-long foliage and Winter fruits. Holly wood was also formerly one of the three timbers used in the construction of chariot wheel shafts. The ancient name for the Holly was "Holm" and, with the coming of Christianity, it became known as the Holy Tree...symbolic of the Crown of Thorns.
The Holly was particularly sacred to the Druids who instructed folk to take it into their homes during Winter in order to provide shelter for the Elves and Faeries during cold weather. It was said that to keep even one leaf inside after Imbolc (a MidWinter celebration also known as Candlemas) would bring about misfortune.
In Ancient Rome, gifts of Holly were given during the Saturnalia celebration and the use of its branches as Yule decorations was common to many cultures. The image of the Holly King is familiar to most people and has been personified as the Ghost of Christmas Present in several celluloid versions of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol."
By tradition, a Holly branch should never be cut from the tree but instead, must be pulled off. It is considered unlucky to cut or burn Holly, but it is thought to be lucky to hang a small branch remaining from the Yule celebrations outside the house. This is said to protect against lightning and ensure good fortune.
To avoid bad luck, be sure never to bring holly into your house prior to Christmas Eve. However, not having holly in your house at all on Christmas Day is said to conjure the worst of luck for all members of the family.
It is supposed to be very unlucky to step on a holly berry, cut down a holly tree, sweep a chimney with holly, or burn discarded holly boughs, which some folks believe invites the Angel of Death to claim a member of the family.
To the Druids, the Holly was regarded as a strong and protective herb, guarding against evil spirits, short-tempered Elementals, poisons, thunder and lightning. The notion of protection against lightning is based upon the fact that the spikes of Holly leaves act as miniature conductors, granting immunity to the tree. It is said that lightning will never strike a holly tree nor anyone who stands under the branches of one during a storm.
The Holly tree was also believed to be especially favored by the Sun.
As a magickal herb, the Holly bestowed wisdom and courage and was considered to be useful in dream magick. According to lore, if a young girl gathered nine leaves from the "she-holly" at midnight on a Friday and then tied them into a three-cornered handkerchief using nine knots, she might dream of her future husband by placing the handkerchief beneath her pillow. A variation of this spell dictated that the leaves had to be collected in silence and bound in a white cloth...again using nine knots. This, when placed under the pillow, was said to make dreams come true.
It was once thought that if the smooth leaves of the "she-holly" were brought into the house first during Yule, then the wife would rule the household during the approaching year. If the "he-holly" with its prickly leaves were brought in first, then the husband would rule. It was also once believed that if a man carried a Holly leaf or berry upon his person, he would become attractive to women.
The so-called “male” variety of holly (with prickly leaves) brings good luck to all persons of the male gender; while the “female” variety (with smooth leaves) brings good luck to all of the fairer sex.
One old custom associated with the Holly was to place pieces of candle on the leaves, light the candles and then float them in a tub of water. Each person would then make a wish upon their leaf. If the candle remained lit, then the wish was said to come true.
According to Pliny, Holly wood when thrown in the direction of any animal would compel that animal to obey. Medicinally, the Holly was used during meditation to calm the mind and body.
In Christian lore, the Holly miraculously grew its leaves out of season one Winter night in order to hide the Holy Family from Herod's soldiers. One variation on an ancient legend also states that it was the tree from which Christ's crucifix was made, all of the trees of the forests refusing the defilement of the cross by splintering into tiny fragments at the touch of the axe, the Holly alone behaved as an ordinary tree, allowing itself to be cut and formed into a cross, and it was the blood of Christ that gave the holly berry its deep red color.
It was a widespread belief in the Middle Ages that the holly possessed miraculous curative powers. Pricking or thrashing the feet with holly and then walking barefoot in the snow was once thought to cure chilblains (an inflammatory swelling caused by cold and poor circulation). Another old method for treating chilblains was to rub the ashes of burnt holly berries upon the afflicted areas.
To prevent a fever, scratch your legs with a holly branch; and to ease a whooping cough, drink a bit of fresh milk out of a cup or bowl made of holly wood.
Sources: Novareina and The Modern Witches Book of Herbs