For centuries throughout Europe, holly has been believed to repel evil, and this belief lingers to the present day. The old Pagan traditions of bringing holly boughs into the house in Winter, as a place for good faeries to play and protect the home, is echoed down to our own era, when holly wreaths are brought indoors for Christmas, to await the arrival of the Winter Elf King, now commonly known as Santa.
It was long regarded unlucky to leave holly wreaths up after Twelfth Night, so they were generally consigned to the fireplace on New Year’s Eve. However, some felt that good luck could be obtained by keeping a sprig from a church’s holly wreath, so the church decorative wreaths would be divided among church members.
The Celts of the British Isles and Gaul believed the Holly King ruled over the dark half of the year (Winter), whereas the Oak King ruled the light and Summer. This ancient belief was preserved into medieval times in mummers’ plays, and has now been adapted into the neo-Druid and Pagan traditions.
The Holly King is often portrayed as a war-like giant bearing a great wooden club made of a thick holly branch. He is associated with Arthurian Legend as the Green Knight, who challenged Sir Gawain during a Yuletide feast, brandishing as his weapon “a solitary branch of holly.”
In Scandinavian mythology, the holly belongs to Thor and Freya. Tinne, pronounced CHIN-yuh, is the Ogham (in the Celtic Tree alphabet) associated with the month of the holly, and is the equivalent to dann or tan, a Celtic word for any sacred (holy) tree. It is also related to Tannua, a Gaulish thunder God, who was associated with the dark Tanist God of the underworld and known by a variety of names such as the Green Man, Jack-in-the-Green and Robin Hood. All are associated with the renewal of life following death, through the creative power of ancient tree magic.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, in Shinto mythology, the Japanese holly (Ilex crenata) echoes the holly’s story in Europe. When the Sun Goddess Amaterasu withdrew into her cavern and refused to come out, the erotic clown-goddess Uzume hung a sacred jewel and mirror in the branches of a holly, and began to dance about the black-fruited holly tree in raunchy good humor, to attract the attention of Amaterasu and draw her out of the cavern so that life would return to the land. Even today, a very popular Japanese good luck charm is a glass ball etched with holly leaves, symbolic of Amaterasu’s mirror, jewel, and tree.
In addition, a popular New Year’s charm consists of a holly leaf and skewer. This represents a story about the abundance God Daikoku. Once when He was about to be attacked by an oni devil, His friendly companion rat hurried into the garden to fetch Him a holly branch, since an oni devil will not go near holly. To this day, there is a tradition of hanging a holly sprig on the door to the house to keep away devils, not at all unlike the many holly-related beliefs in Europe.