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.
- Oh, 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.
- The holly bears a prickle as sharp as any thorn,
- And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ on Christmas Day in the morn.
- The holly bears a bark as bitter as any gall,
- And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ for to redeem us all.
So where does the ivy come into play in the song, "The Holly and the Ivy?" Except for its appearance alongside holly in the opening stanza, it isn't even mentioned in the song. If this one, insignificant reference to ivy were struck from the lyrics, in what way would the song suffer? And if your answer is, "Not at all," then the next logical question to ask is: Why is the carol not titled simply, "The Holly," instead of, "The Holly and the Ivy?"
....The answer may lie in the fact that "The Holly and the Ivy" is based on older songs, such as "The Contest of the Holly and the Ivy" ....
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.
What we see played out in "The Contest of the Holly and the Ivy" and similar songs (perhaps dating back to medieval times) is the rivalry between men and women, thinly disguised as a contest between the holly and ivy. 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.According to an article at Dave's Garden:
Using ivy as decoration also dates back to the time of the Romans, who associated it with Bacchus (the Roman equivalent of the Greek Dionysus, god of wine and intoxication). Ivy was a symbol of fidelity and marriage, and was often wound into a crown, wreath or garland. It also served as a symbol of prosperity and charity, and thus it was adopted by the early Christians, for whom it was a reminder to help the less fortunate. In early England, it was considered bad luck to use ivy alone in decorating for Christmas, and would give the woman of the house the upper hand.The same site explains the symbolism of holly:
The practice of ornamenting the home with holly began with the Romans, who regarded it as an omen of good fortune and a symbol of immortality. They sent congratulatory wreaths of holly to newlyweds, and also used it as a gift during the festival of Saturnalia (a celebration which itself is based partly on Greek and Egyptian solstice observances). As early Christians adopted the practice of decorating with the plant, holly took on religious associations--namely, that the spiky leaves represented Christ’s crown of thorns, and the red berries his blood....
The Christmas carol “The Holly and The Ivy” is an example of how ancient beliefs were absorbed by the Christian church. The song we sing today was recorded by a folk song collector named Cecil Sharp, who heard it sung in Chipping Camden, Gloucestershire, in 1909:
The holly and the ivy,
When both are full well grown.
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown.
Oh, the rising of the sun,
The running of the deer.
The playing of the merry organ,
Sweet singing in the choir.Subsequent verses transform the carol into a Christian song. Dr. Ian Bradley, of the St. Andrews University School of Divinity in Scotland, writes that the although the lyrics focus on the holly as a symbol of Christ, ivy is also mentioned because of the carol’s basis on an older medieval song in which the plants personify men and women. In the earlier song, holly and ivy were equals, with holly representing goodness and masculinity; ivy standing for evil (or at least weakness) and femininity.To the medieval mind, the male was considered the dominant sex, and a support for the weaker and more delicate female, thus the rigid holly shrub and the twining ivy vine must have seemed like natural embodiments of those traits. The original meaning of “The Holly and the Ivy” is a reminder that there has always been a subtle and humorous (sometimes not so subtle and humorous) competition between men and women for dominance. These two tough plants may represent the struggle between the sexes, but they can also be seen as a celebration of male and female cooperation and interdependence. (Read more.)
(Artwork from Karen) Share