Friday, 20 November 2009

A Bunch of Holly

This morning, the rain slipped away towards the east and left a sky rinsed clean and pale blue. Underneath the tall holly hedge lay more ripe, red berries, loosened by the relentless rainfall and winds of recent days. Across the pasture, small flocks of mixed thrushes were arriving; song thrushes, mistle thrushes and a few rust-striped redwings joining our native birds from lands across the North Sea.

I decided to harvest a bundle of holly today, while the red berries remain. Out came the long handled pruner and down came short holly branches, enough to decorate the house in late December, in time for Christmas.

Now, the holly boughs are safe in a cool shed, lying across an old ladder to store and keep until nearer to Christmas Day.

Our share of the holly harvest. The birds can have the rest!

The pruner is over eight feet long and is able to reach and cut branches high up in the tree.

We planted this lovely holly in a garden border two years ago and will wait a few more years before we harvest foliage and berries from it.

The native holly has been cut and brought into homes in winter for thousands of years. It has a pagan significance as the evergreen leaves symbolise everlasting life . Bringing evergreens home in the depth of winter was a way of looking after the spirits of the woodland, or of "bringing home the ancestors".

Christianity took these ancient customs and added symbolism that reflects the life of Jesus. The sharp leaves reflect the crown of thorns while the bright red berries symbolise the blood of Christ.

I like to bring evergreens inside at Christmas as part of the continuity of ritual and custom that has been with us for centuries. The poorest cottager or the wealthiest lord might have decorated their homes with holly, taking enough for their wants but still leaving trees of red berries standing in the winter cold to feed the hungry birds.
Here is another Walter de la Mare poem:

The Holly

The sturdiest of forest trees
With acorns is inset;
Wan white blossoms the elder brings
To fruit as black as jet;
But O, in all green English woods
Is aught so fair to view
As the sleek, sharp, dark-leaved holly tree
And its berries burning through?

Towers the ash; and dazzling green
The larch her tassels wears;
Wondrous sweet are the clots of may
The tangled hawthorn bears;
But O, in heath, or meadow or wold
Springs aught beneath the blue
As brisk and trim as a holly-tree bole
With its berries burning through?

When hither, thither, falls the snow,
And blazes small the frost,
Naked amid the winter stars
The elm`s vast boughs are tossed;
But O, of all that summer showed
What now to winter`s true
As the prickle-beribbed dark holly tree,
With its berries burning through!

by Walter de la Mare


Morning's Minion said...

A lovely poem and a first acquaintence with it for me. I sometimes wish it were possible to separate the older pagan customs of Christmas from the Christian ones, but then--we can choose which ones we wish to observe, after all. But, how sadly lacking if we don't know some of the history and lore behind the things we do.
I have never lived where holly grows, so it is only known to me in song and story. So pretty--but prickly perhaps?

Bovey Belle said...

I can see I shall have to go back for the Walter de la Mare poetry book . . . We always bring greenery into the house too, but there isn't very much holly round here - even less of it with berries this year.

I can never see a big holly bush without thinking of the one that Juliette de Bairacli Levi wrote about near Godshill, where the gypsy women used to go to give birth . . .

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