Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Holly and the Ivy

The Holly and the Ivy, a Christmas carol dating from the 17th - 18th Century, is one of my most favorite.  The concept of Holly and Ivy has come to symbolize different things over time, from the original pagan festivities of the Winter Solstice, or emerging as a homage to Jesus Christ and his Virgin birth, to even being a representation of the Battle of the Sexes.

The dreaded Pagans - Holly was sacred to the Druids.  To alleviate the dreariness of winter they would decorate their dwelling places with it, allowing the greenery and the berries to recall the Springtime to come, the hope and promise of rebirth.  Pagans fashioned Holly and Ivy into wreaths and garlands for the Winter months; Ivy had a close association with the idea of Bacchus, the Roman God of wine, Holly with Saturnalia (upon which the Christmas holiday was based)  Holly and Ivy were accepted decorations during Roman times, and despite the disapproval of early church fathers, they gradually found their way into our Christmas traditions.

The Church - Early English Lyrics by Chambers and Sidgwick, published in 1926, mentions a broadside of 1710 with a version of the carol which begins

The holly and the ivy
Now are both well grown
Of all the trees that are in the wood
The holly bears the crown

The holly bears a blossom
As white as lily flower
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To be our sweet Saviour.

The holly bears a berry
As red as any blood,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To do poor sinners good.

The holly bears a prickle
As sharp as any thorn,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
On Christmas Day in the morn.

The holly bears a bark
As bitter as any gall,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
For to redeem us all.

The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown
Of all the trees that are in the wood
The holly bears the crown.

Here the Pagan symbols for life and rebirth, Holly and Ivy, are captured in lyrics that possess a definite Christian meaning.   The blossom, 'white as lily flower,' recalls the purity of the Blessed Mother and the innocence of the birth of Jesus.  The red berry recalls the blood of Christ, the prickle of the leaves as sharp as the Crown of Thorns, the bark bitter as the gall given to Christ to drink as he died on the cross.  'Of all the trees that are in the wood, the Holly bears the Crown."

The Battle of the Sexes - Everyone's favorite bitter/sweet battle.  Supposedly, in ancient English village life, men and women would hold singing competitions in midwinter with the men praising Holly for its masculine strength and disparaging the Ivy for it's femininity.  Of course, women took the opposite viewpoint (remember, the battle between men and women is as old as time).  Women would praise the Ivy for its feminine qualities and scorn the Holly for it's manliness.  Not surprisingly, more 'Holly' songs survived, as this example below.

Holly stands in the hall, fair to behold:
Ivy stands without the door, she is full sore a cold.
Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be I wis;
Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is.

Holly and his merry men, they dance and they sing,
Ivy and her maidens, they weep and they wring.
Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be I wis;
Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is.

Ivy hath chapped fingers, she caught them from the cold,
So might they all have, aye, that with ivy hold.
Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be I wis;
Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is.

For me - The Holly and the Ivy reminds me of watching old black and white Christmas movies on television late at night, the English ones especially, like A Christmas Carol - every year my brother and I would watch the Alastair Sim version on TV (NEVER the Reginald Owen one).  I also think of midnight mass for which I could never seem to stay awake.  As the choir sang carols I would fall asleep leaning on my mom's arm or snuggled in my father's lap.  

Happily, the carol continues as popular as always, bringing me so many happy memories of Christmas past.  When I was younger I never understood when old relatives would become melancholy on such a wonderful day!  I loved Christmas and the gifts and the family joy.  But then time took its toll on me as well. I got to be an old crank like my aunts and uncles before me.  As you age you sometimes lose your grasp on the holiday you loved as a child; worse yet, you lose the very people who made it special.  

It is then that the real meaning of Christmas, hopefully, recharges your spirits.  This is a holiday of hope and rebirth; after all, the salvation of the world is at hand.

Hold your loved ones near and never let them go

And have a very Merry Christmas
God Bless Us, One and All.

Karen V. Wasylowski is the author of two books, 'Darcy and Fitzwilliam' a rollickingly funny continuation of Jane Austen's 'Pride and Prejudice'
'Sons and Daughters', a rollickingly funny continuation of 'Darcy and Fitzwilliam'
(The Family Saga of Mr. Darcy)

Purchase either book here, at

Visit her blog, as well



Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.