December (Mensis December) is named for the latin word “decem” meaning “ten”. December was the tenth month in the old Roman calendars that began in March. In 153 BCE, the beginning of the year was moved from March to January, and December became the twelfth month. Holly has long been associated with the twelfth month of December and the Winter Solstice.
Ilex aquifolium, commonly known as European holly or English holly, is the type species within the Ilex genus. It’s native to Europe, northern Africa and parts of Asia. The genus name Ilex comes from the Latin name for evergreen oak, Quercus ilex, commonly known as holly oak or holm oak. Holly was sacred to Cronus/Saturn in Greco-Roman mythology, while holly oak was sacred to Zeus/Jupiter.
In Celtic-Norse mythology the deciduous English oak, Quercus robur, and evergreen holly were powerful symbols of strength, hope and regeneration. The Holly King, Ilex aquifolium, reached its peak on the Winter Solstice, while the Oak King, Quercus robur, was quietly reborn. In Spring the Oak King sprouted new buds as the Holly King dropped it berries.
On the Summer Solstice the Oak King was cloaked in green leaves while the Holly King silently sprouted white blossoms. In Fall the Oak King dropped its leaves and acorns as the Holly King’s berries turned red. This yearly cycle between the evergreen holly and the deciduous oak was a metaphor for the changing of the seasons and the endurance of nature.
Holly is dioecious, meaning there are male and female trees, which both produce white blossoms, but only the female tree produces the iconic red berries. Oak trees are monoecious, meaning they are “one” as both “female and male”, with separate female and male flowers growing on each oak tree.
The Druids saw holly as a symbol of fertility and eternal life as it’s evergreen leaves and red berries thrived in the winter snow. They felt its red berries had magical powers, similar to the white berries of mistletoe that grew in the winter bare branches of oaks. Holly and mistletoe were believed to bring good luck and protection, which made them attractive decorations during the dark days of December.
The Romans associated holly with Saturn, the god of Agriculture, whose feast day was in the twelfth month of December. Oak was associated with Jupiter and Juno, the King and Queen of the Roman gods, in the sixth month of June.
- Note: Sumerian astronomers were the first to record the orbits of the seven “sky gods” (Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus and Saturn). Their mystical vision of the cosmos inspired the sexagesimal (base-60) counting system. They created a lunisolar calendar of 360-days (with five extra days = five fingers on one hand) with 12, 30-day months “moons”. This supported their definition of a circle as 360 degrees. They divided the fixed stars along the ecliptic into 12, 30-degree sections to define the constellations. They recorded the orbits of all 7 sky gods and realized that Jupiter and Saturn’s orbits were dramatically longer. Jupiter took 12-years to move through the zodiac while Saturn took 30. They saw this as an affirmation from Saturn and Jupiter that the numbers 12 and 30 were divinely inspired. They saw Saturn and Jupiter as a cosmic couple, much like the Sun and Moon. They noticed that within a 60-year cycle, Jupiter would complete 5 orbits and Saturn 2. The numbers 5 and 2 added together equalled 7, which represented the 7 sky gods and the 7-day week. 5 and 2 created 52, which mirrored the 52-weeks in a year. Saturn (Ninurta – god of Agriculture) and Jupiter (Enlil – chief of the gods) influenced Greco-Roman mythology.
In Roman mythology, Saturn ruled over the “Golden Age” when humans enjoyed the bounties of earth in a state of bliss and innocence. Holly was sacred to Saturn. Saturnalia was a festival of feasting and drinking, where societal rules were temporarily cast aside and roles were reversed. People dressed in costumes and wore holly to embody the power of Saturn.
In 45 BCE, the Julian calendar designated December 25 as the astronomical date of the Winter Solstice, when Sun gods such as Mithra, Helios, Apollo or Sol are reborn.
Saturnalia grew into a seven-day festival from December 17 – 23, to prepare for the return/rebirth of the sun. Wreaths of holly were hung on doors, while sprigs of holly were given as gifts to bless the new year.
In earlier Greek mythology Saturn was known as Cronus, one of the twelve Titans born to Gaia (Mother Earth) and Uranus (Father Sky). When Uranus refused to allow his children to leave Gaia’s womb (Earth), she created a sickle to set them free. With the help of his siblings, Cronus cut off his father’s genitals and cast them into the ocean. The 12 Titans were now free to live out their destinies, many of them in the sky. By overthrowing his father, Cronus became the King of the Titans and the Father of Time. This story is an allegory that time moves forward. It inspired the image of “Father Time” holding a sickle on New Year’s Eve.
Cronus married his sister Rhea who bore him six children. Fearing that history would repeat itself, Cronus swallowed his children as soon as they were born. Upset, Rhea hid their sixth child (Zeus) and tricked Cronus by giving him a swaddled stone. When Zeus was old enough, he gave Cronus a toxic potion that forced his father to release Zeus’s 5 siblings. By usurping his father, Zeus became the King of the 12 Olympians, which included himself, his five siblings and the six children he fathered with his sister Hera. In Roman mythology, Zeus and Hera are equated to Jupiter and Juno.
This myth is an allegory for the inevitable change of the seasons between winter and summer. Zeus (Jupiter) as the sixth child, represented the sixth month of June (Juno – Summer Solstice). Oak was sacred to Zeus, Jupiter and Juno. Cronus (Saturn) represented the twelfth month of December and the Winter Solstice, holly was sacred to Saturn.
On December 25, 275 CE – the Sun gods Mithra, Helios, Apollo and Sol were melded into one god as Sol Invictus, “the Invincible Sun”. Winter Solstice was officially declared to be the birth date of Sol Invictus. These “Sun gods” were typically depicted with a halo (disk of light) radiating from their head in eight directions.
Emperor Constantine originally saw himself as the Sol Invictus, but before his death in 337 he shared a vision that the “Sun God” Sol Invictus revealed himself to be Jesus as the “Son of God.”
By 354, December 25, Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (Birthday of the Invincible Sun) was now officially designated as the birth date of Jesus, the Son of God on the Winter Solstice. Jesus is often depicted with a halo radiating in four directions, reminiscent of the sun gods.
The story of Jesus’s birth is found in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, but neither specified the date, month or year in which Jesus was born. This left it open for interpretation, which is why December 25, the date of the Winter Solstice, was ultimately accepted by the church.
In 392 Roman Emperor Theodosius declared Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire. The worship of all other gods such as Sol Invictus, Saturn, Jupiter, Juno etc. were illegal. After the fall of the Roman Empire in 476, the Roman Catholic Church became the governing force in political and religious affairs throughout Europe.
In 567 the Council of Tours replaced the “pagan” festival of Saturnalia with Advent. The word “Advent” means “coming” or “arrival”. This was now a time of preparing for the coming of Christ vs the Sun. Advent began on the fourth Sunday before the Nativity (December 25). It was observed with fasting vs feasting and devotional prayers vs parties.
Advent wreaths were made with holly to represent the eternal nature of God. It held four candles that represented the four Sundays of Advent. Holly became known as “Christ’s Thorn”. Its prickly leaves were his crown of thorns, while the red berries were his blood.
The Council of Tours also declared that the 12-days from Jesus’s birth on December 25 to Epiphany on January 6 were holy days. “Epiphany” means “appearance” or “manifestation”.
Epiphany commemorates the Adoration of the Magi, when three Wise Men or Kings, followed a guiding star to Bethlehem. They blessed the baby Jesus as the King of the Jews with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The night before Epiphany became known as the “Twelfth Night”. These twelve-days became known as “Christ-tide”.
In Northern Europe, the Winter Solstice had been inspiring the construction of solar circles and megalithic structures for 12,000 years. Newgrange in Ireland, and Stonehenge in England were both oriented to capture the Sun’s rays on the Winter Solstice. The celebration of the sun’s return on the Winter Solstice evolved into “Yule tide”.
The word Yule comes from the old Norse word Hjol, meaning “wheel” as in a year, or Jol a name of Odin (sky father) as the “Yule One.”
Oak was sacred to Odin/Woden and burned as a Yule log for twelve days. This was done to bring luck for the twelve months to come. A portion of the Yule log was set aside and decorated with holly to start the Yule fire the following year.
The first night of Yule, known as Modranicht or “Mother’s Night”, was held on the eve of the Winter Solstice. This longest night of the year was dedicated to mother goddesses such as: Terra Mater, Nerthus, Erde, Frau Holle, Frigga, Jord and Freya. They were the spinners of fate, who wove the seasonal threads of birth, life, death and rebirth. Special altars were set up in homes and candles were lit to honor all past, present and future mothers.
One of the oldest Germanic mother goddesses was Frau Holle, whose feast day was December 25th. She is known to ride a plough (aka: the Big Dipper) around the North Star as she transforms from a young woman to a crone who orchestrates the seasons by tending to the spinners. Holly was sacred to Frau Holle as a symbol of everlasting life and protection. Its evergreen leaves represented hope and its berries fertility. Holly was used as decorations during Yuletide and placed on windowsills to ward off lightening.
In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII introduced the Gregorian calendar that aligned with the correct dates of the Solstices and Equinoxes. The Julian calendar, enacted in 45 BCE, had drifted, which meant that the original date of the Winter Solstice on December 25, no longer aligned with the true astronomical date of December 21. This provided an opportunity to separate the “pagan” celebration of Winter Solstice from the “Christian” holy day of December 25.
Even though they were separated, the traditions of Yuletide merged with Christmas and holly’s role continued to evolve. On the Winter Solstice, girls wore crowns of English ivy as Queens to the Holly King, boys wore crowns of holly.
The 1800’s Christmas carol, The Holly and the Ivy, now associated holly with Jesus and the Virgin Mary with ivy. Boughs of holly, the once sacred plant of Saturn, now became the most famous choice for traditional Christmas decorations. As seen in the opening line of Deck the Halls… with boughs of holly.
Holly is a evergreen symbol of the sacred circle of life. The word holy means to be “whole” and the word holiday means “holy day”. Holly helped to inspire the holy holidays. We celebrate these “holly days” in the twelfth month of December.
- Twelve Days of Christmas – December 25 – January 6.
- Twelve Days of Yuletide – December 21 – January 1.
Ideas for December:
- Make twelve wishes or intentions for the year ahead.
- Remember that nature wants us to slow down and restore ourselves.
- Create a Winter Solstice altar with holly, candles and gifts from nature.
- Decorate your home with holly and other evergreens.
- Make an evergreen wreath with holly, ivy, mistletoe etc.
- Tie sprigs of holly onto gifts for family and friends.
- Decorate a Yule log with holly and enjoy a fire in your fireplace or go outside.
- Look at the night sky and see if you can find Jupiter and Saturn.
- Find a nearby oak tree and connect with its ability to silently recharge during winter.
- Gaze at the North Star located at the tail of the Little Dipper.
- Imagine Frau Holle riding in the Little or Big Dipper as she circles the Earth.
- Warm yourself on the longest night of the year with hot chocolate, chai, warm milk and honey.
- Set your intentions for the year ahead, like seeds in the sky.
- Celebrate the holidays with family and friends.
- Count your blessings.
- Enjoy the simple things for they are often the most important.