Holly has been a mainstay of Christmas decoration since the fifteenth century, mentioned regularly in churchwardens’ records, but many of the specific traditions about it are found in much later accounts. It has been said that the kind of holly that comes into a house at Christmas could determine who would be master during the coming year, the wife or the husband. If the holly is smooth the wife will be master, if the holly is prickly, the husband will be the master.
Holly is palatable to livestock despite its spines and was extensively used as a winter fodder for livestock in medieval times. Hay and grains for wintering stock would often run short, and the livestock would eventually have to be slaughtered, causing problems to medieval economies in the following years. Thus, a supply of fresh browse would have been extremely valuable. Written records of payments and agreements involving the use of holly for livestock cover a wide period from the late 12th century to the mid-18th century, by which time the practice had been largely abandoned.
In the past, many believed that it was extremely unlucky to decorate before Christmas Eve. It was once thought that if every scrap of Christmas decoration was not removed from the church before Candlemas Day on February 2nd, there would be a death within a year in the family occupying the pew where the leaf or berry was left.