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  • Writer's pictureFr. Vili Lehtoranta

The Holly and the Ivy

The British Christmas song The Holly and the Ivy is very old. It is of pagan origin and therefore it is most unusual that it should have survived over the years, especially during the stern Protestant period of the 1600s.



In England, holly and ivy have been natural decorations during winter celebrations, together with other similar plants, e.g. rosemary, bays and mistletoe. The holly was the only thing remaining alive and green throughout the dark winter of the frozen north. Natural decorations were common in homes, on light standards on the streets, and in churches – except for the mistletoe, which retained certain pagan overtones that the churchmen could not tolerate.


This custom of decoration was of Roman origin. Ivy was used as a decoration way back in Roman times. So was holly, which was figured prominently in the Roman celebration of the Saturnalia, as it was considered sacred to the false god named Saturn. Holly and other evergreens were subsequently adopted by Christians as Christmas decorations in Roman times, despite protests from some disapproving Church Fathers, who regarded the decorations as too pagan.


This Christmas song is one of a series of medieval English carols on the subject of the rivalry between holly and ivy, battling for the mastery of the forest. These two plants came to be associated with the genders, holly being masculine and ivy feminine. The ancient custom of evergreen Christmas decorations in Britain, kept up as late as 1779, referred to holly and ivy. They were taken indoors during the winter in hope that the occupants would survive difficult conditions just like these hardy plants.



Holly and ivy were put up in farm houses on Christmas and were not taken down until Septuagesima. Then the girls of the village collected the withering ivy and bound it into a bundle, which they called the ivy-girl. Meanwhile the village boys got possession of the holly, which they twisted into a rude effigy of a man. By nightfall the bonfires were lighted, but the holly-boy was nowhere to be found. The girls had stolen him away, and in a game between the boys and the girls, all the boys now tried in their turn to capture the ivy-girl in revenge. When they finally found her, the ivy-girl was carried off in triumph by the boys, and while the holly-boy was discovered blazing in the girls’ bonfire, they boys likewise burnt the ivy-girl with much shouting and rejoicing.


Holly, ivy and the other natural decorations of Christmas had their time as decorations, and it was always an occasion to take them down. Thus the poet Robert Herrick (1591-1674) wrote that on February 2nd, the Feast of the Purification:


Down with the rosemary, and so

Down with the bays and mistletoe;

Down with the holly, ivy, all

Wherewith ye deck’s the Christmas hall;

That so the superstitious find

Not one least branch there left behind:

For look! How many leaves there be

Neglected there, Maids, trust to me,

So many goblins you shall see.


It is clear then, why the evergreens, such as holly and ivy, came to play an important role in the Christmas celebrations. But what is not so apparent is the origin of the carol sung now on Christmas. Is this carol really about holly and ivy?


As they once fought over the mastery of the forest, in this Christmas carol the forces of good and evil have been making war throughout the history of mankind; but it is the holly who “bears the crown,” i.e. wins the day, as Christ conquered over sin and the devil. The holly and the ivy are battling for supremacy, and holly wins.


The symbolism between Christ and the holly is further developed in the following stanzas. Holly is “white as lily,” and this is an allusion to Christ’s purity through Mary. In the third stanza, a correlation is drawn between the red color of holly’s berry and Christ’s blood. Holly’s thorny “prickle” in the fourth stanza is an allusion to the “crown of thorns” worn by Christ. And the bitter taste of holly’s bark mentioned in the fifth stanza could be a reference to the drink given to Christ as he hung on the Cross.


The tune of this ancient anonymous carol is said to be over a thousand years old. The traditional lyrics date to the 1600s when it became a popular English Christmas carol. There are various melodies for the verses, but the most popular is the one first published by Cecil Sharp in the 1911, as supposedly sung to him by a Gloucestershire woman.



THE HOLLY AND THE IVY


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.


O, the rising of the sun,

And the running of the deer,

The playing of the merry organ,

Sweet singing in the choir.


The holly bears a blossom,

As white as lily flow’r,

And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ,

To be our sweet Savior.


O, the rising of the sun...


The holly bears a berry,

As red as any blood,

And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ,

To do poor sinners good.


O, the rising of the sun...


The holly bears a prickle,

As sharp as any thorn,

And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ,

On Christmas Day in the morn.


O, the rising of the sun...


The holly bears a bark,

As bitter as any gall,

And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ,

For to redeem us all.


O, the rising of the sun...

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