But what is not so apparent, at first glance, is the origin of the title, "The Holly and the Ivy.
Below its lyrics sans chorus are furnished, so that we may take a closer look:. 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. As can be seen from the verses above, "The Holly and the Ivy" takes a plant holly deeply entrenched in the pagan past and imbues it with Christian symbolism.
Here is one way to read that symbolism and this is the general consensus on the subject :.
The Holly & The Ivy
So where does the ivy come into play in the song, "The Holly and the Ivy? If this one, insignificant reference to ivy were struck from the lyrics, in what way would the song suffer? But first, some history. In "The Contest of the Holly and the Ivy," ivy plays a role equally important to that of holly. The mention of ivy in the first stanza and the last stanza, which merely repeats the first in "The Holly and the Ivy" is, therefore, a hold-over, a remnant from an earlier era, a fragment pointing to music with a very different meaning. The influence of the earlier songs about the holly and the ivy was apparently so strong that the ivy was given a cameo appearance in this one, too—despite the fact that only the holly has any major role to play in it.
Holly was conceived of as being masculine in the plant symbology of the time, probably because it is more rigid and prickly; while the softer ivy is associated with the feminine in this tradition. Now you can see why: The symbolism of this stanza harks back to an earlier time and harbors a meaning quite distinct from that of the rest of the song. Consequently, we must treat the opening stanza separately. The reference to the holly's "crown" in the first stanza should now make more sense, as should the inclusion of the ivy.
Such was not always the result, however, in these old songs about the rivalry between the holly and the ivy. The people of earlier epochs were, by and large, closer to the earth than are we moderns. They paid attention to plant relationships that probably escape most 21st-century folks. They were also more inclined to the use of symbolism, including plant symbology. Noticing an ivy vine in the forest twining itself around a holly tree , for instance, afforded them ample reason to compare the two plants. Out of that comparison, a piece of plant symbology was born. And as a result of that plant symbology, the holly and the ivy will remain intertwined for ages—not only in the forest, but also in song.
Holly's "white as lily" flower in the second stanza is an allusion to Christ's purity, through Mary. Wyatt of East Harptree, Somerset. The only alteration that I have made is in the second stanza, substituting in place of the obviously incorrect "On Christmas day in the morn" which Mrs. Wyatt gave me the line given in the text which is the usual broadside rendering. The words are also on a broadside by Wadsworth of Birmingham.
This is one of a series of medieval English carols on the subject of the rivalry between the holly and ivy vying for mastery in the forest.
The holly and the ivy: how pagan practices found their way into Christmas
These two plants came to be associated with the sexes, holly being masculine and ivy feminine. In this carol, the holly is used to represent various aspects of Christ's life and the ivy is not discussed at all. Pastor Prange also pointed out that Sans Day Carol , "Now the holly bears a berry as white as the milk," had a similar theme.
The contest between the masculine holly and feminine ivy elements in nature is a backdrop to this carol about aspects of the life of Christ. Discussions about the ancient pagan mythology concerning holly and ivy often overshadows the true meaning of the carol:. Over the centuries, these distinction between the masculine holly and feminine ivy have, to an extent, been blurred but see this curious account from Holly-Boy And Ivy-Girl.
Holly and ivy became less the battleground and more the backdrop, although their decorative uses may also be of very ancient origin. Perhaps because of their evergreen natures, holly and ivy have been natural decorations during winter celebrations, together with other, similar vegetation including rosemary, bays and mistletoe.
Misteltoe: fertility plant
Another example, before we leave the topic of yuletide decorations:. But holly, ivy and the other natural decorations of Christmas had their time as decorations, and that time only. Thus, the poet Robert Herrick would write that on February 2nd, the Feast of the Purification and the very, very end of the Christmas-tide :. 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. Finally, the holly would also assume certain symbolism in the life and suffering of Christ. Its use at Christmas was seen as a presage of Good Friday and Easter.
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See also Modryb Marya - Aunt Mary. Here Comes Holly Husk, Ivy, Chief Of Trees Husk, Nay iuy, nay Sandys, The Contest of the Ivy and the Holly Husk, , with notes. Nay, Nay, Ivy! Green Growth The Holly. Grene Growith The Holy Greene. Sans Day Carol "Now the holly bears a berry". Holly and The Ivy , "Some go in for sporting, and other fancy balls," a secular song concerning the love of " sweet Bell and Rosy Lee. John Brand, Observations on Popular Antiquities.
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With the Additions of Sir Henry Ellis. London: Chatto and Windus, From W. Carew Hazlitt, Faith and Folklore. Two Volumes. London: Reeves and Turner, Christmas Decorations At Christmas. Holly-Boy And Ivy-Girl. Percy Dearmer, et. Earthly Delights: Xmas Carols. Hugh Keyte and Andrew Parrott, eds. Oxford: Oxford University Press, William L. Simon, ed. Holly , Ilex , is any of several trees and shrubs that belong to the holly family, Aquifoliaceae.
Hollys have glossy, evergreen or deciduous leaves, small, inconspicuous flowers, and bright red berries. Holly was thought to be the home of wandering spirits. It was hung in homes to assure the occupants good luck. It was assumed that the "points" would snag the evil-intentioned and prevent their entering. When holly was brought into the house, it became an object of lively interest and speculation.
It was incorrectly believed that the very sharp "pointed" leaves were male, the smoother, female. Thus, the type of holly determined who should "rule the roost" in the coming year. Victorian merchant, Henry Mayhew estimated that London merchants sold , bushels during the Christmas. Many other myths surround this most popular of all Christmas plants:. It supposedly wards off witches.