A popular Christmas plant
Ivy refers to any large number of climbing or creeping ornamental vine plants. The most popular ivy seen at Christmas is the variety Hedera helix, a member of the ginseng family. An excellent creeper, this plant remains lush and green even during the coldest months of December, and can cling to some of the smoothest of surfaces with ease. Ivy will flower in late autumn and small blackberries are produced in late winter. In natural settings the berries are an important source of food for winter animals but are incredibly poisonous for people. Decorative ivy is not typically purchased with the berries in tact. Artificial ivy used to make Christmas decorations and wreaths will sometimes contain the berry look.
Ivy's symbolic meanings are various. Its symbolism is based on the fact that it is an evergreen plant, it clings and it grows in the shade. Like holly, ivy has a peculiar connection with foretelling the future. This theme of the eternal beauty of evergreen plants reaching beyond seasons to another time is consistent through many different superstitions and beliefs. For example, in Scotland, should a woman be curious about her future mate she might hold the ivy leaf to her breast and recite, "Ivy, Ivy, I love you, In my bosom I put you, The first young man who speaks to me, My future husband he shall be." Perhaps it was because of such incantations, or because early use of ivy was associated with the Roman god of wine and revelry, Bacchus, that ivy was successfully removed from Christian homes and banished from churches for a time. The negative associations with ivy were first inspired by the fact that it grows in the shade. The way that ivy flourishes in the shade connected the plant to notions of secrecy, debauchery and hidden desires.
The clinging look of ivy signifies the faithfulness and connection of close friendships and love relationships. Through its association with holly, early English carols sang of holly as a symbol of manhood and resiliency, whereas ivy was considered to be feminine and grasping.
Pagan winter festivals used ivy to ward off evil spirits. Since contemporary Christmas celebrations tend to be a mix of pagan and Christian traditions, ivy continues to be a popular decoration for hearths and stairways. It is still not as popular as evergreen plants and holly but it makes an interesting and festive addition to hearth and home.