There’s a reason we sing about it. Why the real symbol of Christmas should be a holly tree

Picture of Paul Cappiello Ph.D.

Paul Cappiello Ph.D.

Yew Dell Botanical Gardens Executive Director

I have a question about holiday decorations and symbols of the season. It’s a question that’s bothered me for many years and the lack of suitable answers leads me to one inescapable conclusion. There’s a major Christmas cover up going on… and it’s been going on for a long time. I’m beginning to think Schroder from the Peanut’s Christmas story has it right – the whole Christmas thing is run but a big eastern syndicate!

Ok, put on your fur-trimmed conspiracy theory hat and let’s get to it...

What’s the biggest décor item connected to Christmas – the one that snickers knowingly as it looks down its nose on all the other holiday decoration items? The Christmas tree, of course. It’s all green and regal and smells all Christmasy. Heck, it even sports a gleaming star at its apex as if to say, “Me… the fir tree… I’m the alpha dog around this holiday thing…” 

But here’s the question. Was there a fir tree decorated with multi-colored, flashing, LED lights sitting next to that famous Bethlehem manger? Did the Wise Men bring fir sprigs or artificially cinnamon and bayberry scented cones as gifts for the new born child? I don’t even think there’s a fir tree in the background of Leonardo daVinci’s Last Supper painting. I mean there’s all kinds of evergreen plants out there that can claim that rather loose, evergreen/immortality, metaphor thing. Why all the hype about the fir? That eastern syndicate thing is starting to gain some momentum…

So, let’s turn for more clarity to our friends the Druids.

So many of our ancient tales, customs, or lore travel through the Druids – mostly, I think, because their history is so clouded by the lens of time that we can pretty much attribute anything we want to their mystical culture and get away with it. But they offer a pretty good ancient history touchstone.

As far back as the 2nd century BCE, the Druids were running around present-day Ireland and England, generally sporting long robes (that were probably the scratchiest, itchiest and most uncomfortable things on the planet despite their fabled look…)  funny pointed hats (most likely to hide the lice!) and abnormally long walking sticks (that, according to extensive research, were props dreamt up by the chief Druid image consultant team.) 

Wandering ‘round the woods, the Druids became quite fond of big old oak trees and actually considered them to be imbued with spirits and souls. And around the developing holiday calendar, those Druids would hang with their oak friends who, I’m guessing, were a bit like holiday guests who, because of a lack of language and vocal chords, couldn’t complain about the thermostat, criticize your level of housekeeping or wait until 5 minutes before dinner to tell you that they are lactose intolerant, gluten free and conscientious objectors to using the planet’s dwindling water supply for meal prep. 

But there’s a problem with those oaks. They’re big and cool and regal looking trees, but portable they ain’t. Try adopting a 500 year-old oak tree as a symbol of the season. I don’t know… maybe that’s where the art of Bonsai came from… Wait… forget about that one. That’s a different conspiracy story…

So, the Druids seem to have looked about the forest for another candidate to satisfy the folks in the Druid-based holiday symbol creative department.

And they found... the holly.

That’s right. The Druids’ devotion to oaks was only surpassed by their fascination with the holly tree. A constant symbol of immortality (evergreen leaves) fertility (prominent red fruit) and magical properties, it was the holly that became their symbol of the winter season. And this is all backed up by thoroughly researched science. There are no fir (Abies) species native to the British isles but there is a native holly (Ilex aquifolium) species!

So with that research done, I sat down and started thinking about it. All these years we’ve been dragging home this silly fir tree that’s nothing but green, and then spending hours hanging little red ornaments all over its branches. But that whole time there’s been this Druid-approved symbol of immortality, fertility and magicalness… that comes pre-ornamented with bright red berries? You’ve gotta be kidding me. 

I’m starting to see the trees for the forest now and there’s nothing anyone can do about it – not by threat of cement shoes or an aquatic nap. Schroder and me… we’re on to you, you syndicate people.  

Holly… the next best Christmas tree? You decide for yourself. Just remember… they’re watching…

This article was originally submitted to the Courier Journal on December 6, 2022.

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Blurb about Paul here.

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