Here, in the depths of December, the Holly Tree beckons me from outside my bedroom window. I’m preparing my alter for Solstice tomorrow. Candle light fills my home this season, a symbol of the returning light the time of year brings. I don’t want to rush into the season of growing light. I love this time of year and the quiet of the gardens. It makes me draw in, write more, contemplate more, and (try) to slow down. Everything feels so fast, all the time, it’s easy to forget the seasons we’re in. The tide of nature. I long to slip into its pulse and let it run the show. Let the rhythm of the ancient dictate my day.
The bright red berries of Holly covering this beautiful evergreen provide essential food and shelter for the birds that dance in my back field. Against the grey sky and verdant green of the landscape the berries shout with juicy life. In this seemingly barren season, a walk in the forest quickly reveals the bounty of Nature and just how vital and alive the Earth is at this time of year. Bright red Hawthorne’s, Rose hips, Arbutus berries and Holly berries are still on the boughs, offering themselves as nutrient dense foods for animals and joy for any weary heart that passes by.
Red, the colour symbolic of fire, heat, passion, blood, and vitality, is found prominently in Nature at this time of year when we (and other animals) most need what it has to offer. Red foods typically contain constituents that are blood building, promote circulation and are full of cell protective antioxidants. Red also rouses inspiration, is associated with the heart and liveliness.
There are literally hundreds of different species of Holly (Ilex spp.) around the world. Most of the plant parts can be toxic. Depending on the species, the toxicity can range from somewhat toxic to very toxic so please do your research (and talk to a qualified plant person) before you consider using this herb internally.
The leaves of this plant vary from spineless or full of spines like the classic Ilex aquifolium pictured above.
Holly can be brought into the home, laid on your alter or other sacred place, or taken orally as a Flower Essence to help transform the places in our lives we’re “prickly” and encourages us to soften our reaction to the world if we’ve hardened ourselves to the point of not remembering how to retreat our defences. I’ve been there. Plants help with this. The flower essence in particular can be helpful to transform hatred, anger, or aggressive behaviour that is out of proportion to the life situation. I’ve used this flower essence successfully on animals (as well as humans) who are resenting the addition of a new member of the family. Individuals needing this remedy are often oversensitive and fearful and feel the world is out to get them. Holly can help transform hostility, jealousy, envy, aggression or bitterness.
Most species of Ilex are high in caffeine, a mind-altering alkaloid that many of us familiarize ourselves with every morning with a cup of coffee. However, indigenous cultures traditionally only reserved mind-altering beverages in ceremony, setting a specific intent with which they would call upon the use of herbs that encouraged an expansion of perceptional fields.
Many species of this plant are used for shamanic journeying. Ilex guayusa is used in some blends of Ayahuasca; its leaves have extremely high caffeine content. When I travelled in central and south America I learned plants high in caffeine were those that promoted visioning and mental clarity (aren’t you more creative after your cuppa joe?) I’ll never forget drinking Ilex guayusa while in the Rainforest, and the flood of insight I gained about my dreams. Probably the most famous Ilex plant is Mate (Ilex paraguariensis) now enjoyed all over the Western world in most coffee shops, but once upon a time it was only used in ceremony by the cultures that populated its native land. The common thread connecting the use of this species is they help illuminate the places where we are stuck or unresolved. They facilitate the return of our inner light.
‘Deck the halls with boughs of Holly’
The Druids held the Holly tree as especially sacred, advising people to bring the plant into their homes as it was considered a good omen. As an evergreen, it symbolized the tenacity of life, and the bringer of light even when surrounded by death. Traditionally the Holly tree was considered protective against harmful energies, respiratory diseases, angry faeries, and thunder and lightning. Lightning because the tiny spikes on the leaves supposedly act like miniature lightening conductors giving the tree immunity.
Gifts of Holly were given during the ancient Winter Solstice Rituals. These rituals celebrated the return of the Sun God, in some parts of Europe he was represented as the legendary Oak King. The Oak King would battle the Holly King (sometimes called the Lord of Darkness because he ruled the darker half of the year) who ruled between Summer Solstice to Winter Solstice; while the Oak King ruled between Winter to Summer — each of the Kings ruling each half of the year. These rituals held such power to the “commoners” of Europe that when the Emperor Constantine forced the people to convert to the new religion we call Christianity, he recognised how essential these rituals were to the people so he created new names and meanings to every ancient pagan holiday so to permit the people to continue celebrating their ancient rituals — blanketed with a new Christian meaning. As several theologians point out, there isn’t sufficient evidence that Jesus was born on December 25th, the tradition of celebrating the “Return of the Son” really comes from the ancient pagan “Return of the S.U.N”.
My Solstice Ritual this Year:
I’ll draw a bath, and add leaves of Holly to my bath water to draw out any residual resentments, anger, or unresolved hurts that may be lingering. The ache of personal misunderstandings that still sting, and global despair that I personally cannot change (oh. I wish I could). Then, I’ll rinse my body with a strong infusion of rose petal tea, as a soothing wash of love. I’ll dry off, wrap myself in a wool blanket, and sit at my alter by candle light. In the quiet and dark, I’ll listen. Listen to the deafening silence for messages, visions, of how I can be of service to my communities, the world. These still and quiet points are where, and how, I replenish. I give thanks to the darkness. The place where I fill up. Where inspiration blooms. From where new life emerges.