For some reason, the Christmas carol, “The Holly and the Ivy” has been going through my head for weeks, and for the life of me, I could not recall any other words of the song. Thinking of holly and ivy caused me to pause and wonder why we sing about it in the first place and how it relates to Christmas. I read that holly and ivy have been a mainstay of British Christmas decorations since at least the fifteenth century, for both churches and homes:
I have been busily employed in preparing for passing Christmas worthily. My beef and mincemeat are ready (of which, my poor neighbors will partake), and my holly and mistletoe gathered. –letter from “a wife, a mother, and an Englishwoman,” Examiner, 1818
And I recalled that I’d written about decorating with greenery in at least one of my books, The Silent Governess. Here’s a quick excerpt:
Olivia witnessed the transformation of Brightwell Court with awe and delight. Mrs. Hinkley, with help from the housemaids and hall boy, dressed the mantels, windows, and doorframes with entwined greens of rosemary, bay, ivy, and yew. The housekeeper then twisted a long garland of holly down the stately staircase. “In remembrance of His crown of thorns,” she whispered reverently.
I may have written about holly and ivy, but I’ve never actually done anything with it. Have you? This year, with a deadline looming, my Christmas decorations are rather minimal—a tree, a lighted garland on the railing, and a wreath on the door, bought from the boy scouts. No holly. No ivy.
Apparently, the use of greenery has pagan origins as do many of our current Christmas traditions, but over the centuries it has been adopted and adapted by Christians. The berries are said to symbolize the drops of blood Christ shed for us, and the prickly leaves, his crown of thorns. (By the way, birds love holly berries but they are toxic to humans, so take care!)
“The Holly and the Ivy” is a traditional British Christmas carol—which is probably why I like it. And versions of the song have been found as far back as the 1700s, though the lyrics you are likely familiar with were first published by Cecil Sharp in 1911. He is said to have transcribed the music and words when a woman sang it to him in Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire. (I’ve been there! :)) Here are some of the lyrics:
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 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….
With Christmas almost here, I’m so grateful that Mary bore not only a sweet baby, but also our sweet savior. I enjoyed learning about the symbolism of Holly–whatever its roots (pun intended), and reviewing the lyrics. So now if YOU get this song running through your head, at least you’ll know a little more about it than I did. Merry Christmas!
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