The 12 Days of Christmas Music in 2014, Day 4: Holly and Ivy

Words of the day: “holly” and “ivy” from, believe it or not, “The Holly and the Ivy”
Performed by St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir in 1981


I wasn’t sure which version of this song to use until I stumbled across this one. Besides that you get to watch 1980s television and hair, after the song you get to hear these choir boys being interviewed about singing at Charles and Diana’s royal wedding. Bonus!

So there’s actually a centuries-old feud masquerading as this lovely Christmas carol that hails from England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Lots of old carols set up a kind of contest between holly and ivy, two of a few major plants that stayed green in English woodlands during the winter. (Can you guess a third? It’s another festive Christmas sprig that, apparently, the church wouldn’t allow because its pagan overtones were just too strong, and it still has flirtatious connotations today.)

I’ll get to the feud in a bit, but first, decorative greenery: according to other old songs such as “Get Ivy and Hull” [holly]“Come, Buy My Nice Fresh Ivy,” and “All You that to Feasting and Mirth Are Inclin’d,” decking the halls, house, and churches with greenery was a signature feature of the season. That’s why the Cloisters, near where I live, flaunt the greenery as part of their holiday displays. It was intended to be strictly seasonal though. Churchman and poet Robert Herrick (1591-1671) writes of how it all had to be dismantled by February 2 (in preparation for Lent) or else you get punished by goblins.

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.

– “Ceremony Upon Candlemas Eve” from Hesperides

Herrick commissioned this image of himself, presumably with intentional emphasis on the Roman nose, for his main volume of poetry. Isn't it terrific?
Herrick commissioned this image of himself, presumably with intentional emphasis on the Roman nose, for his main volume of poetry. Isn’t it terrific?


The use of these plants in winter festivities hearkens back not to Christianity, however, but to pagan celebrations, possibly fertility rites. According to mandates from a church council in 614, the Concilium Antisiodorense, Christians were forbidden from decorating their homes with greenery like their pagan neighbors did, perhaps as part of the festival for Saturninus. But eventually it seems the Christian councils gave up and took to decorating even the churches themselves with happy greens. And people really went for it. One Victorian estimated that London merchants sold 250,000 bushels of holly in the 1851 Christmas season! [Side note: We all recognize that our current timing and several of our traditions for Christmas stem from co-opted pagan celebrations, and I think it is the most fortuitous mashup ever. I mean, aren’t you glad that Christmas is in the winter? It would be weird as a summer holiday. Aren’t you glad we have Christmas trees, elves, spiced cakes and drinks? Holly and ivy?? I give you pagans and Christians, ladies and gentlemen, making beautiful holidays together since the early Middle Ages.]

Anyway the greenery got Christianized too. Some traditions hold that Christ’s crown of thorns was made of holly and that previously the berries were yellow. After the crucifixion, however, they turned red. Making a to-do over the plants that stay green when everything else is dead makes a lot of sense whether you’re pagan or Christian, but people got into contests over whether holly or ivy was better. And they sang about it. We have record of several such songs including “Green grow’th the holly, So doth the ivy,” “Ivy, Chief of Trees It Is,” and “Nay, Ivy, Nay.”

Holly and ivy2

But it seems that what they were really arguing about was the good ol’ male versus female debate—which is better, who wins, that kind of thing. Holly, with its prickly leaves, was thought to be more masculine while ivy, with its smoother leaves that might wind around other plants or provide ground cover was feminine. One tradition said that whichever was brought into the house first, the holly as the man or the ivy as the woman, that’s who would rule that year. A rather freaky account from 1779 tells of youth in an East Kent village in England. The girls, aged 5-18 were found burning an effigy they had stolen from the town boys, and and they called their effigy “Holly-Boy.” The boys, meanwhile, were burning an effigy of their own in another part of town called “Ivy-Girl.” The OED dates this tradition as already in place for Shrove Tuesday by 1736. Which just goes to show that we haven’t kept up all the Christmas celebrations over the years.


Which do you think won the contest? The holly or the ivy? The men or the women? I’ll give you a clue: the carol and tradition all come pre-female suffrage. Actually, it’s not really that simple. Some carols give holly supremacy, some give it to ivy, and several only mention both in passing. It is a bit easier to find symbolic associations for holly: its prickly leaves were thought to catch evil spirits, a walking stick from holly would protect from wild animals, hanging it on the bedpost was supposed to give pleasant dreams, and, supposedly, it makes a good cough syrup. In contrast, even though ivy makes the title in today’s carol, it doesn’t get much more play time, and, for the most part, it’s fallen out of Christmas-decorating fashion. Sadly, like Charles and Diana, holly and ivy seem to have split. Ivy was supposed to have power to tell the future; to cause domestics, as it were; and to augur good or bad luck for the coming year. Also, ivy has long been associated with Bacchus or Dionysius and was sometimes hung outside shop windows to designate that wine was sold within. Incidentally, Bacchus was said to be born of a virgin mother on December 25. So, speaking of pagan and Christian mashups, if Bacchus ever gets really absorbed into Christmas traditions, I predict ivy will make a comeback.



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