How Americans came to deck the halls

How Americans came to deck the halls

Deck the halls with boughs of *holly,” the old *Yuletide song goes. Down through the ages cultures as diverse as the Roman, Druid and American – from colonists to today – have done just that to color festivities during dark December days.

The Romans sent holly *branches with lustrous green leaves and bright red berries as goodwill tokens during their “feast of Saturnalia’-The Druids held the plant to be a sacred refuge for woodland spirits. Branches were cut and brought indoors during winter to protect these spirits from cold weather. Many believe that the word holly derives from this belief and is a corruption of the word holy.

By the time the Pilgrims were ready to set sail for America, holly branches had become an integral party of Christmas celebrations throughout Europe. The branches were largely cut from a tree known as English holly (Ilex aquifolium).

Even if they had brought such a nonessential plant with them, the Pilgrims would have quickly discovered that English holly is not *hardy in areas where winter temperatures regularly *dip below minus 5 degrees. Nor does it *thrive where winter lows remain above 15 degrees.

Fortunately for those wishing to carry on old country holiday traditions, a close cousin of the English holly is native to a wide area of North America, from Massachusetts south to Florida and west to Missouri and Texas. It too is an evergreen tree with red winter berries and it was quickly dubbed American holly (Ilex opaca).


holly: any tree or shrub of the genus Ilex, having bright red berries and shiny evergreen’ leaves with prickly edges

Yuletide: of Christmas season, of Christmas festivities

branch: a secondary woody stem arising from the trunk or bough of a tree or the main stem

of a shrub

hardy: (of plants) able to live out of doors throughout the winter

to dip: to sink or apeear to sink quickly

to thrive: to grow strongly and vigorously


1. The Romans during the feast of Saturnalia:

a) made animal sacrifices with the intention of propitiating their deities

b)           sent holly branches as goodwill tokens

c)            burned a great tree

2. What did the Druids think of the holly?

a)            they thought it brought bad luck

b)           they believed it to have healing powers

c)            they thought it was the sacred refuge for woodland spirits

3.            Was the holly brought in America by the Pilgrims?

a)            yes, it was

b)           no, it was not

c)            nobody knows

1b- 2c-3a