Daily Archives: December 28, 2011

Bits of Holly History

It occurred to me that holly–the traditional symbol of Christmas and Winter–is often paired with something and seldom presented on its own.  The “holly and the ivy” is the best example, but there are many others, like this stylized little image of holly and a lyre on the cover of a Christmas concert program from 1898.  I found the program in a dusty box of sheet music at a yard sale a couple of years ago, and opened it just the other day.

That same day I also checked in with the blog of the Met’s Cloisters Museum, The Medieval Garden Enclosed, to find the “holly girls” decorating the museum’s arches with holly.  So beautiful!  I have both interior and exterior arched doorways and several flourishing holly bushes–I wonder if I could do this next year?  Probably not, but at least I can think about it.

Holly is often pictured in the margins of medieval manuscripts (usually with ivy, its companion plant) and seems to have had many associations and virtues, all positive.  With its bright red berries blooming in December, it represents light, warmth and hope, joy and goodwill.  It has always been a protective plant:  against poisons and demons, even lightning.  With the coming of Christianity, it came to be associated both with the Virgin Mary and the blood (berries) of Christ.  In the early modern era, the holly tree was prominently linked with the ars nova of printing, notably on the title age of Leonhart Fuchs’ De historia stirpium commentarii insignes (“New Herbal”, 1542-43).  The title-page device of Basel printer Michael Isengrin features a holly tree with a printing-house platen amongst its branches,representing its increasing secular symbolism.

And here are two more holly herbal images from Elizabeth Blackwell’s Curious Herbal  (1739) and Francois Andre Michaux’s North American Sylva (1819).  Blackwell illustrated her own book, while Michaux called upon one of the most famous botanical illustrators of his day, Pierre Redoute.

In the nineteenth century, the holly becomes the stereotypical holiday plant through advances in lithography and the emergence of the dynamic greeting-card industry, which produced millions of holly-embellished holiday cards.  But there were other images of the plant out there too:  elaborate theatrical costumes, ceramics, cigarette cards.  The collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum encompasses a large collection of costumes from the London theater, including these two creations by “Wilhelm” (William Charles Pitcher) for productions in the 1890s:  Holly personified, with Mistletoe and alone.  From the same era and collection is the Minton “Four Season” tile, with holly representing winter.

And then there were so many cards: cigarette cards for advertising, Christmas and New Year’s cards for “greeting”.  The first card below, issued by the Duke’s cigarette company in the 1890s, is part of a “Language of Flowers” series, which associated holly with “foresight”.  The second and third are British and from the 1920s, illustrating the uses of the (hard) holly wood (chess sets and teapot handles, apparently) and the boy scout “holly patrol” badge.  How the holly has “evolved”:  from the blood of Christ to the boy scouts!

And finally two greeting cards, both from the vast collection at the New York Public Library Digital Gallery like the cigarette cards above:  a simple New Year’s Day card from the turn of the last century and a birthday card of similar vintage on which holly is paired with something I’ve never seen before:  turquoise?

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