Although holly is the only decorative tradition which remains of this once famous duo, the origins of both plants' usage during the holiday season is an ancient one. The Romans were very fond of using holly during their Solstice celebration, known as Saturnalia. It was also closely associated with the God Dionysus. Gifts of holly boughs were exchanged during this time, since the plant was believed to ward off lightning and repel evil spirits.
The Druids also held holly, one of the only vibrant plants to be found during the Winter, in high esteem as a plant of death and regeneration. Since its berries are red...the color of life and blood...it was perceived as a "female" plant, representative of the Goddess. Ivy, the accepted symbol of friendship, was believed to represent the consort of the Goddess and, therefore, "masculine" in nature. The ancient custom of decorating the doorway with entertwined garlands of holly and ivy represented unity between the dual halves of divinity or, alternatively, the ritualized battle of the sexes.
Tradition held that whoever first brought holly into the house at Christmastime, whether it be the master or mistress, would be the one who should rule the household for the coming year.
With the advent of Christianity, holly became associated with the word "holy." Symbolically, it represented the crown of thorns worn by Jesus and it was believed that the berries of the holly plant, originally yellow in color, were stained red by the blood of Christ. The "Sans Day Carol," a traditional carol from Cornwall in England, focuses on this aspect of the holly's symbolism and the different colors of berries to be found on hollies. As mentioned, red was representative of Jesus' blood, while white berries found on some holly trees symbolized Jesus' purity. Green berries represented the cross upon which Christ died and black berries, the death of Jesus.