#WhitworthAdvent: A History of Holly

Frederick James Shields, The Holly Gatherers, c.1858. Accession number:
D.1930.60 Source: the Whitworth

The Holly Gatherers (1858) is a small scale, elegantly adorable watercolour drawing by prolific Victorian artist, illustrator and designer, Frederick James Shields (1833-1911), that would make the perfect traditional Christmas card.

As an ancient symbol of winter in various European traditions, holly eventually became commonly associated with Christmas, and often referred to as ‘Christ’s Thorn’. Since Medieval times, the plant has carried a Christian symbolism; paired with ivy in festive decorations in and around homes and churches during Yuletide, and, as expressed in the popular Christmas carol, “The Holly and the Ivy”, which can be traced as far back as the early 19th century.

An anonymous broadside sheet published by H. Wadsworth, Birmingham, circa 1814–1818, sets the first verse at: “The holly and the ivy, Now are both well grown, Of all the trees that are in the wood, The holly bears the crown.”

Should you wish to delve deeper into holly folklore, I recommend you take a listen to the compellingly beautiful Christmas song by the wonderful South Yorkshire folk singer-songwriter, Kate Rusby; “The Holly King”, from her 2019, Christmas album, “Holly Head”:

“All Hail he comes, The Holly King he comes, He’s dressed all in green array, And the icy wind he shuns. All Hail he comes, The Winter King he comes, He’s crowned in verdant splendour. And he’s seen a million suns.” – Rebecca

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