The Holly and the Ivy

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For the 1952 film, see The Holly and the Ivy (film).
Holly and ivy in Wales.

"The Holly and the Ivy" is a traditional British Christmas carol. Holly and ivy have been a mainstay of British Christmas decoration for church use since at least the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when they were mentioned regularly in churchwardens’ accounts (Roud 2004). Holly and ivy also figure in the lyrics of the "Sans Day Carol". The music and most of the text was first published by Cecil Sharp.[1] Sir Henry Walford Davies wrote a popular choral arrangement that is often performed at the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols and by choirs around the world.

Tune for The Holly and the Ivy

Congregational arrangement

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Lyrics[edit]

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:
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
Refrain
The holly bears a berry as red as any blood,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to do poor sinners good.
Refrain
The holly bears a prickle as sharp as any thorn,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ on Christmas Day in the morn.
Refrain
The holly bears a bark as bitter as any gall,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ for to redeem us all.
Refrain

Origin[edit]

Green holly and ivy.

Lyrics[edit]

European Holly[2] was sacred to druids[3] who associated it with the winter solstice, and for Romans, holly was considered the plant of Saturn.[4] European Holly has always traditionally had a strong association with Christmas. Henry VIII wrote a love song Green groweth the holly which alludes to holly and ivy resisting winter blasts and not changing their green hue So I am and ever hath been Unto my lady true.

Early English Lyrics by Chambers and Sidgwick, published in 1926, mentions a broadside of 1710 with a version of the carol which begins

The holly and the ivy
Now are both well grown
Of all the trees that are in the wood
The holly bears the crown

An early book mentions the carol as well as a manuscript containing a more ancient song which is, or was, in the British Museum. The book was printed in 1823 and entitled Ancient Mysteries Described: Especially the English Miracle Plays founded on Aprocryphal New Testament Story extant among the unpublished manuscripts in the British Museum by the author, investigative journalist, devout Christian and former satirist, William Hone (1780–1842), and printed at 45 Ludgate Hill London. The book contains a list of carols (p 99) described as Christmas Carols now annually Printed including 70. The holly and the ivy, now are both well grown.

The book also describes (p 94) a British Museum manuscript: The same volume contains a song on the Holly and the Ivy which I mention because there is an old Carol on the same subject still printed. The MS begins with,

Holly and ivy in the snow in Elmstead Wood
Nay, my nay, hyt shal not be I wys,
Let holy hafe the maystry, as the maner ys:
Holy stond in the hall, faire to behold,
Ivy stond without the dore, she ys ful sore acold,
Nay, my nay etc
Holy and hys mery men, they dawnseyn and they syng,
Ivy and hur maydyns, they wepen and they wryng.
Nay, my nay etc'

The music and most of the text was also collected later by Cecil Sharp (1859–1924) from a woman in Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire which is also related to the older carol described as: "The Contest of the Ivy and the Holly", a contest between the traditional emblems of woman and man respectively.

Holly stands in the hall, fair to behold:
Ivy stands without the door, she is full sore a cold.
Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be I wis;
Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is.
Holly and his merry men, they dance and they sing,
Ivy and her maidens, they weep and they wring.
Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be I wis;
Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is.
Ivy hath chapped fingers, she caught them from the cold,
So might they all have, aye, that with ivy hold.
Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be I wis;
Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is.
Holly hath berries red as any rose,
The forester, the hunter, keep them from the does.
Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be I wis;
Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is.
Ivy hath berries black as any sloe;
There come the owl and eat him as she go.
Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be I wis;
Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is.
Holly hath birds a fair full flock,
The nightingale, the popinjay, the gentle laverock.
Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be I wis;
Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is.
Good ivy, what birds hast thou?
None but the owlet that cries how, how.
Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be I wis;
Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is.

There are indications in other manuscripts[citation needed] that in ancient British village life there was a midwinter custom of holding singing-contests between men and women, where the men sang carols praising holly (for its "masculine" qualities) and disparaging ivy, while women sang songs praising the ivy (for its "feminine" qualities) and disparaging holly. (More of the men's songs have been recorded and survived than the women's, as in the examples above.) The resolution between the two was under the mistletoe.[citation needed] These three plants are the most prominent green plants in British native woodland during the winter, and for this reason they earned respect from the early country-dwellers and a place in their traditions.

Music[edit]

An 1868 collection of carols coupled the words of "The Holly and The Ivy" to an "old French carol".[5]

References[edit]

  • Steve Roud (2004). A Pocket Guide to Superstitions of the British Isles. Penguin. ISBN 0-14-051549-6. 
  • Brendan Lehane and the Editors of Time-Life Books (1986). The Book of Christmas (The Enchanted World). Time-Life Books Inc. ISBN 0-8094-5261-8. 

External links[edit]