THE other day, I received a beautiful video by email, showing a grave at Kilcully Cemetery.
It was taken during that freezing snap, and a robin was hopping about on a red object that had been placed on a grave. On closer inspection, you could see the object was a copy of this year’s Holly Bough.
The Cork woman who sent me the email explained: “Every year, my father places a Holly Bough in a plastic cover and puts it on the headstone of the grave of his parents, as they adored it.”
There, in a nutshell, is the key to the enduring appeal of The Echo’s annual Christmas publication, which is 125 years old this year. Yuletide is a time when families congregate, and we remember the dearly departed who went before us. The Holly Bough is now a member of the family too.
The man who took that video had also sent a Holly Bough to his daughter in Perth, Australia, thus ensuring this most Cork of traditions will continue for a new generation.
I always say every village, town and city in the world should have a Holly Bough at Christmas - and I am so thankful that, way back in 1897, a decision was taken to launch one, and it has been lovingly produced and cherished ever since.
I am 20 years as editor this year, and it is such a privilege to act as a conduit for Cork people to tell their stories, and for Cork people to read and share them. It’s wonderful to get feedback, such as the video post of the robin and the Holly Bough in Kilcully.
One of the secrets of the success of the publication in Cork has been how it has been sent out down the centuries to the émigré diaspora around the globe, ensuring Corkonians can enjoy a little slice of home in their faraway places at Christmas.
When I became editor, I decided to emphasise this trait by publishing an annual Photo Gallery and asking readers all around the world to send in their photos of them reading the Holly Bough in the place they called home.
It proved an instant hit, and soon we had pages and pages of Cork people in deserts and on beaches, from the USA to China to Australia, and all points beyond.
The idea grew legs, and readers began to take the Holly Bough on their holidays, on weekend breaks, on work trips, and even to their weddings abroad.
Snaring a place in the Photo Gallery became a challenge for some, who brought the Holly Bough to the Arctic and Antarctic, up some of the world’s highest mountains, even underwater...
One of my favourites showed a guy paragliding over the Himalayas with a guide, taking a selfie and brandishing a Holly Bough. I often wonder what the hell that local Sherpa guide made of this mad Irishman, waving a copy of a Christmas magazine about while several thousand feet in the air!
By now, the Holly Bough must be the most travelled publication in the world. We’ve visited Easter Island, the Austrian church where Silent Night was first performed… entire families have documented their lives in the gallery - from wedding day, to baby snaps, to growing families, down the years.
During Covid, there was a natural lull in the Photo Gallery while we stayed apart, curbed our travel, and cocooned - but still many readers sent in photos in their back gardens in Cork and Mayo, across continental Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas.
Even that nasty virus couldn’t keep the Holly Bough down.
In recent years, I began to wonder which areas it HADN’T been pictured in, so for the 125th anniversary this year, I carried out a deep dive into the archives.
I drew up lists of the places yet to feature in the Photo Gallery - and this Christmas, I am sending out an appeal to all Echo and Holly Bough readers to help me get a full set of all the states, counties, cities, and countries across the world.
Can you help me?
I have complete faith that our brilliant readers can plant a tiny Cork flag in EVERY corner of the world - so here are the places which have NOT featured in the Photo Gallery.
Do your best, readers - see if you can arrange for a photo to be taken there of someone holding a Holly Bough - then email your photo to email@example.com!
Right, here goes...
Of the 50 U.S States, just nine have not been visited by the Holly Bough: Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, West Virginia, and Wyoming.
I’ve already been promised one from New Orleans for next year by one reader - so that’s Louisiana off the list!
Do you have a relative or friend in one of those other eight states - or perhaps you’re planning to visit one of them in 2023?
If so, bring a Holly Bough and camera!
Here, only eight of 44 countries have not featured in the Photo Gallery: Namely, Belarus, Croatia, Moldova, Albania, North Macedonia, Luxembourg, San Marino, and Andorra.
Just three of the 12 South American nations remain unvisited by the Holly Bough - Guyana, Paraguay, and Surinane.
Here, only two of the seven nations have not yet been ticked off our list - El Salvador and Nicaragua.
The following Asian countries have not featured in the Holly Bough Photo Gallery: Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Yemen, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Iraq, Bangladesh, Tajikstan, Bhutan, Armenia, East Timor, Palestine, and North Korea. (Note that official Irish Department of Foreign Affairs advice is to avoid non-essential travel to North Korea).
We have only visited around a quarter of Africa’s 54 countries, so any nations on this continent, particularly those off the beaten track, would be very welcome additions.
Perhaps surprisingly, given the emigration there down the centuries, there are still 12 of England’s 48 counties unvisited by the Holly Bough: Bristol, Cumbria, Dorset, Herefordshire, Isle of Wight, Northamptonshire, Northumberland, Staffordshire, Suffolk, Tyne and Wear, Warwickshire, and Worcestershire.
So come on, Holly Bough readers - get your thinking caps on and let’s conquer the world!