This beloved carol, believed to be originally of Welsh origin, had already been around for quite awhile when Mozart used it for a piano duet in the 18th century. You can read more about its interesting history in William Studwell's A Christmas Carol Reader.
Even older than the song is the actual tradition of using holly to ring in the Christmas season. In fact, it may have even been used in Ireland during the time of the winter solstice long before the advent of Christianity. But for many, many centuries now, the Irish have celebrated Christmas and holly has been a part of that celebration.
Here's how it went in the olden days, according to Bridget Haggerty's An Irish Christmas - Then and Now. In preparation for Christmas the women cleaned the inside of their homes, the men cleaned the outside, and the children's job was to "scout the countryside for appropriate decorations to be cut and brought home on Christmas Eve." Holly, cuileann in Gaelic (pronounced "qwill-un"), was considered one of the best finds because of its colorful berries. After the "gathering of the greens", sprigs of these glossy leaves and clusters of red berries graced mantles, doorways and other places of the Irish home at Christmastime. According to Christmas in Dublin, the plant came to symbolize the Savior: the spiky holly leaves were the crown of thorns and the red berries were drops of blood from Jesus' face and head.
Lucky children in a few particular counties in the south of Ireland might be able to add mistletoe, or drualas (pronounced "dhroo-ah-lus") to their collection of greenery. Mistletoe also had a long-standing role in Celtic culture, symbolizing peace and fertility.
Many Irish emigrants took the tradition of decorating with holly and mistletoe to their new countries, and that may be why many of us hang holly and mistletoe at Christmastime today.
Image of the holly courtesy of Scenic Reflections.The vintage postcard images above (circa early 1900's) are courtesy of twogatos.com. Visit the website to view more beautiful postcards.
This article is part of a series written in celebration of the Advent and Christmas seasons. It will be included as part of the GeneaBloggers Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories 2009 Day 5: Outdoor Decorations. (Apologies to Thomas MacEntee for taking liberties with the outdoor decorations theme for today and discussing indoor decorations with an outdoor flavor.) Make a visit to Thomas's GeneaBloggers website for some additional inspiration to get yourself in the holiday spirit!
The article originally appeared here at A light that shines again and was included in Thomas MacEntee's Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories 2007.