Even amid the glitz and glitter of our commercialised Christmas, certain seasonal songs have surprising power. For me, The Holly and the Ivy is one of those songs. I probably first heard the carol and began to internalise the words and tune before I was ten years old. Now, although I am not religious, all it takes is a mere mention of the title or a hint of the tune to set the carol going in my head evoking memories of past Christmases. The carol has an interesting history and although the words are staunchly Christian, references to holly and ivy come from much earlier pre-Christian times.
In case you need reminding, here is the first verse of the carol, with the refrain:
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
Refrain: The rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing in the choir
The most popular version of this carol, the one you will most likely encounter this Christmas, was first published as recently as 1911. The folk song collector, Cecil Sharp was visiting the Cotswolds in January 1909 and heard this version sung by Mary Clayton of Chipping Campden. Sharp transcribed the words and tune and published them together for the first time in his book English Folk-Carols and this has become the accepted version. Here is a link to a recording:
The words of the song can be found before that time in several early 19th century and one early 18th century Broadsides (early forms of printed lyrics). None of these versions, though, gives the tune and, most likely, the carol was sung to different melodies with local modifications of the words in different parts of the country, and passed between generations as part of the oral tradition.
One of these local melodies has recently become very popular with folk singers. It was first recorded in 1952 by Maud Karpeles and Pat Shaw from the singing of Peter Jones of Bromsash in Herefordshire. I remember hearing this version myself for the first time about twenty years ago sung in a very lively manner by Magpie Lane and it transforms The Holly and the Ivy into a celebratory Christmas song that is great fun to sing. Here is a link to a recording by the Oxford Waits and the Mellstock Band:
The existence of different versions of the song passed on orally in different parts of the country suggests that The Holly and the Ivy is a very old, possibly medieval song. We tend to think of all Christmas songs as timeless accompaniments to traditional Christmas festivities but many were, in fact, written in the 19th century or later. A few, including The Holly and the Ivy, are much older.
But why holly and why ivy? Holly can grow as a tree or it may be part of a hedge restrained by cutting and shaping. Its dense mass of prickle-edged leaves acts as a barrier, a natural barbed wire, and its red berries glitter with welcome colour even on the darkest winter day. Ivy with its prolific climbing habit can, given the chance, rapidly overwhelm walls and hedges and is often treated as a nuisance or simply ignored. It is, though, covered in flowers in the autumn providing late season pollen and nectar for insects and its dark berries are relished by birds in the winter.
The Christmas significance of the two plants derives from their evergreen nature. Both bear shiny green leaves seemingly brimming with life throughout the winter when most other plants and trees are leafless. Holly and ivy were popularly gathered along with mistletoe and other evergreens to decorate churches, houses and streets at Christmas time from at least as early as the 16th century and probably before. This custom may be a relic of pagan midwinter celebrations with the evergreens symbolising rebirth, the return of the light and the greening of the landscape in spring. The custom survives and holly and mistletoe, both preferably with berries, are still used as Christmas decorations although ivy seems to have fallen out of fashion.
But what about the words of the carol? Perhaps we shouldn’t delve too deeply into such a traditional song but the first verse does seem counterintuitive. Holly is rarely a large tree and unlikely to dominate all others and this verse contains the only reference to ivy in the entire song. The refrain contains some pleasant imagery but it also seems out of place and the editors of the New Oxford Book of Carols believe it may have been a later addition to older medieval words.
Overall, though, the carol tells the story of Christ’s life interwoven with the life of the holly tree. So, verse 2: “The holly bears a blossom as white as the lily flower” refers to the white flowers borne on the bush in late spring with white signifying the purity of Mary and Jesus. Verse 3: “The holly bears a berry as red as any blood” refers to Christ’s blood. Verse 4: “The holly bears a prickle as sharp as any thorn” refers to the crown of thorns. Verse 5: “The holly bears a bark as bitter as any gall” is another reference to the crucifixion.
The Holly and the Ivy is also one of several carols from medieval England that tells of the rivalry between holly and ivy for mastery of the forest, a contest with its origins in ancient folklore. In The Holly and the Ivy, the holly “bears the crown” so winning the contest; perhaps that’s why we hear no more about the ivy. Holly was also traditionally seen as a masculine symbol perhaps because of its stouter prickly leaves and ivy a feminine symbol with its softer leaves. The carol may, therefore, contain a gentle reference to the ups and downs of relationships between men and women.
So, in The Holly and the Ivy, we have a much-loved, traditional Christmas carol suffused with Christian and pre-Christian symbolism. Even among the approaching Christmas clamour, the song never fails to bring pleasure whichever version we choose to sing.
I wrote this piece for the December 2021 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.