I usually tell this traditional story in the character of Mrs. Alice Porter, my southern storytelling character. I found the original story at Appalachian History.
When Jesus was born, the evil, wicked King Herod tried to kill all the boy children so he could murder the young king. Angels had shown up in Joseph’s dream and told him to take Mary and Jesus and hightail it for Egypt until the trouble was done. And so he did. It was about the third day on the road to Egypt, when trouble started. Joseph had stopped to rest Jack the donkey, who was seeing the world for the ﬁrst time.
Joseph climbed a large rock to look around the countryside. There was trouble coming up fast behind them. Joseph could see three of King Herod’s evil soldiers riding toward them on great warhorses. There was no way Jack the donkey could outrun warhorses. The Holy family would have to hide.
Now, the area between Bethlehem and Egypt is mostly open desert country. There was no place to hide. Joseph looked around in vain. Then Mary saw a tiny grove of trees.
Joseph hurried over to the Oak tree and said, “Oak tree, will you hide baby Jesus from the vicious soldiers of evil King Herod?”
“No!” answered the Oak tree. “ I am the King of the Forest and I simply cannot be bothered to help the likes of you.”
Joseph turned to the Pine tree. “Pine tree, will you help hide baby Jesus? The evil soldiers want to kill him.”
“No! I am the Queen of the Forest. I cannot be bothered to help the likes of you.”
Joseph looked at the Spruce tree. In those far off days, Spruce trees looked a whole lot different from our Spruce trees today. At that time, the branches of the Spruce tree grew straight down along the sides of their trunk. Not much of a place to hide.
Joseph asked, “Spruce tree, can you help hide our baby?”
“I’ll try. I’ll try.”
The Spruce tree grunted and groaned, trying to pull its branches away from its trunk. Spruce tree got the branches out from her trunk, but they stuck slanting down and the Spruce tree couldn’t pull them back or push them out. They just stuck right there and wouldn’t move. In fact, even today, the spruce tree’s branches are still stuck in the same place.
There was another tree in the grove that back in those days was called the Ilex tree. We know it by a different name today; but I’m getting ahead of our story.
Ilex was a childish tree. Always acting silly. Playing with the wind, ﬂipping its branches, bending this a way, bending that a way. It didn’t have no respect from the other trees in the little grove.
But when Ilex heard Mary and Joseph he answered them, the only tree that did. “Hurry, hurry over to my trunk! I can bend over all of you and touch my head to the ground. I can wrap my branches around you and no one can see you through my leaves. But be careful, my leaves are sharp!”
And so the Holy family hid in the Ilex tree, and let me tell you it was a miracle because even donkey Jack’s round donkey rump hid underneath the leaves, and neither Holy Family nor little Jack got a single scratch from the Ilex tree.
Meanwhile, back on the road one of the soldiers said, “Sergeant, I saw someone standing on that rock over there awhile ago. That man was looking back in our direction. We’ve been riding kind of fast and should be getting close to whomever it was. But I don’t see anyone.”
“You’re right”, answered the Sergeant, “they must be hiding somewhere. We’d best look for them.”
“No places to hide that I can see Sergeant,” said the soldier.
“You’re right there too. Except maybe that funny round green tree over yonder. One could hide in alongside of the trunk. Let’s ride our horses into the branches. If we ﬂush out anybody and they got any babies, King Herod says we got to kill them, and we will do just that.”
Ilex heard the soldiers, and as the horses came close she raised her spikey leaves.
“Whoa, whoa! Back up horse, back up! I don’t know what kind of tree this is, but we’ll be scratched and bleeding. Nobody could hide in that tree. We’ll go back and tell King Herod that this road was clear.”
Ilex watched the warhorses ride back toward Judea. When the soldiers were gone, Ilex slowly pulled away her branches and lifted her head.
“Mary, Joseph: the soldiers are gone and you are safe!”
Mary and Joseph thanked the Ilex tree. They all said their goodbyes and promised to stop and visit, if they came through this road again.
Mary, riding Jack with baby Jesus and Joseph, went on to Egypt.
They had hardly rode out of sight, when Michael, the Archangel, appeared in the air above the Ilex tree.
The mighty archangel, whose voice could blast whole forests if God wanted him to, spoke gently to the little tree. “Ilex, that was a great battle you fought today. We are so proud of you. You will not be forgotten. From this day on, you and all your kith and kin, for all time, will keep your leaves green all year round. I’m also going to give you three berries, three for baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph. And the berries will be the color red so that when people see you, they will be reminded of the blood you drew from the soldiers, in this great battle to save the Holy family.”
And just like that, the Ilex tree grew beautiful clusters of red berries and stayed green all year around. And Ilex’s descendants traveled far and wide across lands and wide oceans, and here they came to this fine country of ours, and is named the Holy Tree — the Holly Tree who helped save the baby Jesus.