Thursday, December 19, 2013

Tradition English Christmas Carols: The Coventry Carol and The Holly and the Ivy

by Lauren Gilbert

English: Madonna and Child with Saints, Crucifixion and Nativity. 1350-60, Detroit Institute of Arts.

I find the old religious carols very moving and an important part of the festive season.   I thought it would be interesting to consider (and listen to) two of my favourites.

The Coventry Carol, surprisingly, is not a Christmas carol at all. It is actually a part of the Feast of the Holy Innocents, celebrated December 28th, commemorating the massacre of the young children of Bethlehem ordered by King Herod in an attempt to eliminate the Messiah. The song is supposed to be rooted in one of the Coventry Corpus Christi plays which was the “Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors,” (one of a cycle of medieval mystery plays where local people performed theatrical productions based on Bible stories). Basically, this song is a lament, women singing a last lullaby for their murdered children.   It is lovely, sorrowful, and haunting.  Another interpretation has it as Mary’s lament for the future fate of her newborn Son.   It seems a strange song for a festive time, but brings home part of the deeper meaning of the holiday for me.

The origins of the Coventry Carol as we know it are not clear.  The play was performed in the 15th century for Queen Margaret of England in 1456 and for Henry VII in 1492.  It may go back as far as 1392.  The lyrics known today are attributed to Robert Croo 1534 (based on early 19th century copies of a manuscript that was destroyed in 1875), and the music to an unknown composer in 1591.  There are conflicting references for this song, but it is known to have been performed and popular in the 16th century in some form, and are still popular today.  A lovely version is available on You Tube, with the Westminster Cathedral Choir:

The Holly and the Ivy, on the other hand, is a more "modern" work, from about 1700.  However, it has its roots in even more ancient traditions, to those of the Druids and Romans.    The holly was symbolic of man (rigid with prickly leaves and berries like drops of blood) and the ivy of woman (gentle, clinging, requiring support).  Holly was associated with the Roman Saturnalia, while ivy was associated with Bacchus, the Roman god of wine.   Holly was considered lucky and a symbol of immortality; the Romans used it to decorate their homes and to make wreathes for celebrations such as weddings.  The Romans considered ivy a symbol of prosperity, charity and fidelity.

In Celtic tradition, holly was a feature of summer and winter solstice celebrations.  From earliest times, decorating with evergreens during the dark winter months was popular.  When absorbed into Christian tradition, the holly represented Christ (the Crown of Thorns, and the Blood of the Crucifixion), and the ivy Mary. Apparently, the bitterness of holly’s bark was associated with the vinegar and gall given to Christ during the Crucifixion. The twining habit of ivy was supposed to remind the faithful to rely on God.

The words were first published in 1710 in a broadside sheet. They are not logical, and ivy is only mentioned in the title and the first verse. This absence leads to speculation about missing verses, or changes of lyrics. The song may have derived from earlier songs in which holly and ivy feature, of which there are many including one version supposedly set to music by Henry VIII. The music with which we are familiar today was documented in 1909, but the origins are apparently unknown. It also has a mournful quality, but I don’t find it as haunting as the Coventry Carol. In any event, I really enjoyed this version done by Kings College, Cambridge in 2008, shown on You Tube:

Both of these carols are a complete contrast to most of the other music so beloved at this time of year, whether secular or religious.  In spite of their sad overtones and foreshadowing of later tragedy, they bring a depth of meaning to the Christmas season that enhances the joy and gives substance to the festive mood.

Sources: Landscaping. “The Holly and the Ivy” Meaning Behind a Curious Christmas Carol’ by David Beaulieu.(No post date.)

Early Music Notes blog. “The Coventry Carol (Lully, lullay) posted by Cody Sibley 12/13/2010.

Patheos website. “Coventry Carol: A Bit of History” by Thomas L. McDonald. Posted 12/22/2012.

Google Books. Christmas Music Companion Fact Book by Dale V. Nobbman.  2000: Centerstream Publishers.

Google Books. A COMPANION TO THE MIDDLE ENGLISH LYRIC.Thomas Gibson Duncan, ed.  2005: D. S. Brewer, Cambridge.

Google Books.  The Christmas Carolers’ Book in Song and Story.  1935: Hall & McCreary Co., USA.  Preface by Torstein O. Kvamme.

Google Books. The Winter Solstice: The Sacred Traditions of Christmas by John Matthews.  1998, 2003: Godsfield Press,  Quest Books, The Theosophic Society in America, Wheaton, IL.

Saturday Chorale website. “Feast of the Holy Innocents: The Coventry Carol – Collegium Vocale Gent.”

The Telegraph on line. “The story behind the Carol: The Holly and the Ivy” by Rupert Christiansen, posted 12/14/2007.

The Waits Website. “Coventry Waits”. “The Holly, Ivy and Christmas Plants.” (No posting date.)

Image: Wikimedia Commons.   Note the Nativity and Crucifixion shown in the same work.

Lauren Gilbert, author of HEYERWOOD: A Novel, lives in Florida with her husband.  There is a holly bush in her back yard.  Visit her website at


  1. Thanks, Lauren, this is fascinating! I will have to follow some of these links.

    1. I am so glad you enjoyed it. There are multiple links within each sites to other renditions of both carols.

  2. I have a DVD of the Kings College carols and it is beautiful to look at and to listen to!

    1. I love listening to their singing. Thanks for commenting!


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