When they are both full grown
Of all the trees that are in the wood
The holly bears the crown.
Above is both the first and last verse of The Holly And The Ivy, a traditional Christmas carol which mixes Christian and Pagan references. The carol consists of six verses and a chorus. I have provided links at the bottom of this article to two very different renderings. The first shows Winchester Cathedral Choir singing the carol. The second is a performance by Annie Lennox (who I admit is Scottish, but she was born on Christmas Day!) of the same song.
The leaves of the holly tree (or bush – there are numerous varieties) are sharp edged; the ivy plant is invasive, pervasive, soft and sinuous. Both holly and ivy are hardy evergreens, providing colourful reminders of growth and life at winter time when foliage slumbers. Holly’s red berries are in the carol likened to blood:
As red as any blood
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To do poor sinners good.
A clear reference to life, birth and being in depths of cold and darkness. Such associations were understood before the Christian era, yet they also provided a natural link with Christian traditions and the blood of Christ. The words above allude to the blood of Christ’s birth, life and death.
The four middle verses of the carol have the same third line - And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ. Two verses end with reasons why the virgin mother bore her son - To be our sweet Saviour andFor to redeem us all. The fourth verse concludes by stating when Jesus was born - On Christmas Day in the morn.
The Holly And The Ivy has a repeating tune which echoes in verses and chorus – easy to learn and sing. The chorus means that even if people don’t know all of the words as the carol progresses they are likely to be able to join in with parts of the song. I have found myself singing the carol quietly to myself both inside and outside (which has elicited some questioning looks!) whilst writing this article. To me The Holly And The Ivy is a song of two parts – the natural/pagan and the Christian. The chorus, as with the verses, begins with the natural world and moves to Christian symbology:
O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing in the choir.
Both holly and ivy have ancient roots. The wood of the holly tree is good for fire – holly wood has often become the Yule log, an ancient winter association. Holly has also been used as a winter foodstuff for livestock, due to the fact that it is one of the few plants that can grow and prosper in the coldest months of the year. Holly can be a useful hedge plant, keeping animals in whilst giving them something to munch on! In contrast ivy has a bad name – in modern times home owners are concerned that it spreads quickly and can find and fill cracks in walls with ease. Ivy thrives in shade and thus can often be seen climbing trees and/or carpeting the ground around them.
The Holly And The Ivy – Winchester Cathedral Choir
The Holly And The Ivy – Annie Lennox