Overshadowed by gossiping poplars,
crowded by muttering oaks,
in Lagan Meadows
I almost disregard you.
Your jagged skirt keeps me at boughs’ length –
any closer and you will scratch.
I kneel at your hem,
note supple, green arms,
the scoop and point of leaf edges,
clusters of green berries
embroidered like seed pearls
Deep within I sense a kingdom ripening.
Of all the trees in the wood
1000 BC Rain lashes your mud-daubed hut, wind shrieks through its straw roof, your tribe might be attacked at any moment and you’re faced with disease and failed crops. In the darkness of winter it feels like the world might end. Your druids assemble in woodland groves to invoke the help of powerful spirits. You gather branches of holly – the red and green startling in this bleakest of seasons – and drag them into your hut; faeries shelter behind the leaves and in return dispense kindness to all those who live there. On 21st December you celebrate the Winter Solstice, implore the Holly King to pull Nature through to spring.
50 BC The Romans begin to invade. They take a week off in December to celebrate Saturn, their god of agriculture and harvest. They too deck their dwellings with holly, offer gifts to the gods and each other.
Christian missionaries fan out across Europe, adapting their new religion to your traditions: keep your holly, they say, but now it symbolises the Saviour’s crown of thorns, the berries his blood, spilled for your sins. Around 400 AD, the Christian Church declares 25th December an official holiday.
You still believe in holly’s powers: tea made from its leaves will cure measles, colds; as your dwellings become more substantial, you nail down doorsteps of holly to dissuade witches from entering; leave holly untrimmed in hedges to trip them as they skim their tops.
1300 Mummers parade the streets of Europe, putting on plays about the Holly King and a green giant of a man, “in one hand a solitary branch of holly/That shows greenest when all the groves are leafless”.
1700 Word spreads that holly has an affinity for control, especially of horses. Perhaps you scent the commercial opportunity because holly is coppiced and hundreds of thousands of stems turned into whips for ploughmen and coach drivers. Its hard, white, close-grained wood is used for inlaid marquetry; your craftsmen create furniture of unprecedented luxury for Europe’s monarchs.
1800 Perfect posture is all the rage: governesses pin sprigs to the necklines of their charges – including Princess Victoria – a sharp reminder for young ladies if they slouch.
1990 a writer starts to imagine a world of Wizards and Muggles, Death-Eaters and a Forbidden Forest. Of all the trees, she chooses holly for her young hero’s wand. You still believe in holly.