Like many of our Christmas traditions the use of Holly and Ivy to decorate our homes goes back to the ancient, pre-Christian traditions associated with winter. Prickly holly as a Christian symbol represents the crown of thorns worn by Christ at the crucifixion and the red berries drops of his blood. Evergreen Ivy reminds people that in order to achieve everlasting life we need to cling to God’s word.
Alternatively, there is the pagan version:
In pagan times, Holly was thought to be a male plant and Ivy a female plant. An old tradition from the Midlands of England says that whatever one was brought into the house first over winter, tells you whether the man or woman of the house would rule that year! But it was unlucky to bring either into a house before Christmas Eve.
Holly (Ilex) and ivy (Hedera helix) were used as winter decorations because they freshened the air and their greenery reminded occupants of the coming spring. While the cold, dark days of winter turned much of the landscape dreary, many varieties of holly and ivy remained green year round, signifying the eternal circle of life. Ancient Romans used holly as decor during Saturnalia, a festival dedicated to Saturn, god of agriculture and husbandry. Holly trees and shrubs and the ornamental vine ivy were also associated with magical properties. In many ancient cultures, the howling, icy winds in the dark nights of winter were believed to be ghosts and demons. Decorating with holly and ivy was thought to ward off these evil spirits.
The use of ivy during winter also goes back thousands of years. The fact that ivy, like some hollies, stayed green throughout the year led some to believe it had magical properties and led to its use as home decor in the winter months. It too, symbolized eternal life, rebirth and the spring season. In some cultures, ivy was a symbol of marriage and friendship, perhaps due to its tendency to cling. In ancient Rome, ivy was associated with Bacchus (known as Dionysus in Greek mythology), god of wine and revelry – and so we turn full circle to our modern Christmas which is still a time to celebrate family, friendship and turning of the year.