Do you have a crocodile bush near you?

Holly bush

A magnificent Christmas Holly tree on Mutters Moor, - Credit: Charles Sinclair

In Devon and Somerset, a low holly hedge used to be called “a crocodile”. So, look out for one as you go around Devon. See if you can spot a solitary branch left standing above the rest of the bush. They say that it acts as a lightning conductor to keep the local trees safe in a thunderstorm! Did you know that Harry Potter’s wand is made of holly!

Holly is a very interesting bush! The earliest form of holly can be found in the Cretaceous period and was here before the great dinosaur extinction. Now there are over 560 different kinds of holly species in the world. I don’t think that Sidmouth has that many, but we certainly have several variants! Can you spot them?

Holly has had a useful role for humans and cattle too! From medieval times to the middle of the last century, holly was fed to cattle and sheep during the winter months particularly when hay was short, or the land was covered in snow and the animals could not graze. It was very important to maintain the supply and there are plenty of old wive’s tales that threaten anyone who tried to chop down or dig up a holly tree, with death being the ultimate last resort to those who dared! They do say that a good crop of holly berries predicts a hard winter. At least nature is providing the birds with a supply of berries during the hard frost and snow.

Before we used the fir tree to celebrate Christmas it was common to bring into the house some holly branches and tie them up to make a “Holly Bush.” Holly was sometimes called “Christs Thorn” or even plain “Christmas” because of the ways it was linked to different aspects of Christmas. The 19th-century carol “The Holly and the ivy” has its roots from medieval days where the holly represented Jesus, and the Ivy represented Mary. The sharpness of the thorns represented the crown of thorns, with the red berries representing the blood shed for salvation.

There is an old folktale that tells another story of how the holly is linked with the holy family.

Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus were fleeing from Herod’s men. In desperation, they went into a little wood.

They asked the oak tree if he would shelter the family. “Oh no,” said the oak, “I am King Herod’s tree. I cannot help you.”

Joseph asked the pine tree. “Oh no,” said the pine tree. “I am King Herod’s tree. I cannot help you.”

Mary turned to the little holly bush. “I’m not very big,” it said “but I will do my best to cover you up! I will make my branches and leaves as big as I can.” The holy family hid in the branches of the holly bush.

Herod’s men were determined. “Look in every bush and tree!” said their captain. The men started to push their swords everywhere. Soon it would be the holly’s turn.

“Please, Lord,” said the holly bush, “help me save baby Jesus!”

A sharp prickly pain hit the holly bush. Little needles began appearing on all its leaves!

Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!

Herod’s soldiers didn’t like being scratched and having blood running. They told each other not to bother with the holly bush – no one could possibly be hiding in there.

And so, they went on their way.

The holly bush carefully raised all its branches and made sure its new leaves did not hurt the holy family.

“Thank you,“ said Mary and Joseph. “May you always have the prickles,” they said, “to remind others how you battled the soldiers, and red berries to show how you drew their blood!”

And from that day to this the holly keeps its prickles and red berries!

Seasons Greetings one and all.