Christmas Folklore: Holly, Ivy, and Mistletoe

Did you know the traditional date for putting up Christmas decorations is 24 December? Presumably our ancestors would be bemused to see decorations going up earlier and earlier each year. However, the truth is that in Victorian times many householders couldn’t wait until Christmas Eve to decorate, but even so the first of December was the earliest acceptable date. So amidst the hustle of this year’s preparations let’s pause to recall the traditional folklore associated with preparing a home for the festive season.

Nothing says festive quite like swags of fresh greenery tied up with red ribbon, of which the plants upper most in our minds are holly, ivy, and mistletoe. However, it is salient to note that although they are cheerful at Christmas, folklore states it is unlucky to bring them indoors at times other than the festive season.


Of course, mistletoe has a strong association with kissing, which dates back to ancient times and mistletoe’s reputation for fertility. In AD 77 Pliny wrote that mistletoe aided conception and a woman wishing to conceive should carry some with her. This lore has made its way down to us over the century as the superstition that anyone standing beneath mistletoe cannot refuse to be kissed.


Less well known is that the type of holly leaf has implications for the distribution of power within the household. If the holly leaf is smooth, then the wife is liable to wear the pants in the forthcoming year; if the leaf is prickly, then the husband is in charge. This same tradition also states that holly is unlucky unless accompanied by mistletoe (perhaps to smooth the way between warring husband and wife).

Ivy and Yew

Bad omens amongst the greenery are ivy displayed by itself, or yew. Whilst ivy was said to bring bad health on the household, the effects were cancelled out when ivy was displayed with other greenery. However, the ill effect of yew is not appeased with the addition of another evergreen because its presence, no matter how well disguised, predicts a death in the house. Indeed, yew is a plant long associated with the dead, perhaps because it was often planted in churchyards to keep cattle from grazing near the graves (the berries are poisonous).

After Christmas

Once Christmas was over there was the dilemma of what to do with the greenery. One tradition held that it should be burnt to bring good luck in the forthcoming year, whilst the opposite view believed it was sinful to burn Christmas evergreens and to do so guaranteed bad luck.

The burning camp has the longer history, dating back to medieval times. Indeed, it was said that if the holly burnt with a crackle, then good times lay ahead, whilst a sooty fire that was slow to catch predicted a death.

Perhaps a compromise would be to feed the greenery to livestock, as became traditional on Victorian farms. Although, even then there was controversy over holly (which should not be fed to cattle) and ivy (which should).

And finally, an interesting twist is the suggestion that the evergreen should be kept (presumably in an outhouse, since it is unlucky to have evergreens indoors except at Christmas) and burnt on Shrove Tuesday to heat the hob to cook the Lenten pancakes.

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