The Holly and the Ivy

by Esmerelda Weatherwax (December 2010)


In the days before the pound shops sold tinsel by the metre the custom was to decorate houses at Christmas with evergreens. On one level greenery was readily available; on another (in my opinion) it was a pre-Christian tradition to hold trees and their greenery in respect.

Everybody knows the tune to 'Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly' even if these days the words are likely to be that of an advertising jingle. The sound of Timex, tick a tick a Timex tra, la, la springs to mind. 

There are records in Churchwarden's accounts as far back as 1598 for purchase of green including cypress, laurel, box, yew and 'rosemarie and baies that was stuck about the church'. 'Christmasing', ie cutting green in the countryside and taking it to town to sell was one way country people could make a few pence for their own Christmas festivities. Much as Christmas tree sales will shortly spring up around town. 

The species of greens (apart from the Christmas tree which needs a separate article to do it justice, and mistletoe which had deep associations with death and fertility in the past and is phenomenally expensive now) most commonly associated with Christmas are holly and ivy.

Ivy has been considered inferior to holly for centuries. This is an obscure 15th century carol which I found in the Oxford Dictionary of English folklore.

Holly stood in the hall, fayre to behold;

Ivy stond without the dore, she is ful sore a-cold.

Holly and hys mery men, they dawnsyn and they syng.

Ivy and hur maydenys, they wepen and they wryng.


The two best known carols on the subject are The Holly and the Ivy, which mentions ivy only in passing and the St Day Carol of Cornwall which doesn't mention ivy at all. Except that qualities both carols attribute to the holly, such as the black and green berry, are more particular to the ivy.

The Holly and the Ivy

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
O 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
O 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 berry
As red as any blood
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To do poor sinners good
O 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 prickle
As sharp as any thorn;
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
On Christmas Day in the morn.
O 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 bark
As bitter as any gall;
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
For to redeem us all.
O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing in the choir

The holly and the ivy
Now both are full well grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown.
O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing in the choir. 


The St Day Carol

1. Now the holly bears a berry as white as the milk,
And Mary bore Jesus, who was wrapped up in silk:

Chorus: And Mary bore Jesus Christ our Saviour for to be,
And the first tree in the greenwood, it was the holly.
Holly! Holly!
And the first tree in the greenwood, it was the holly!

2. Now the holly bears a berry as green as the grass,
And Mary bore Jesus, who died on the cross:

Chorus

3. Now the holly bears a berry as black as the coal,
And Mary bore Jesus, who died for us all:

Chorus

4. Now the holly bears a berry, as blood is it red,
Then trust we our Saviour, who rose from the dead:


Holly blossom is indeed white, some varieties start pale pink and whiten as they open. But while people frequently remark on the glorious red berries of holly how often do you hear them speak of the dainty white blossom that precedes the berries? But my own holly trees and one in our churchyard were such a mass of blossom in May that I was predicting this cold snap (to much amusement) eight months ago. Profuse blossom indicates a good berry crop, and a good berry crop which is food for birds and tiny creatures is said to indicate a hard winter, hence nature is providing for her creatures. It doesn't seem to work for humans so far as I know. We don't get a bumper harvest prior to a hard winter. Or perhaps we did and the effect has been lost over centuries of scientific agriculture. 

Then once all the red berries are eaten where do birds go? On the ivy for the black ivy berries which ripen from green just after Christmas. I photographed them, in the car park behind the local petrol garage of all places in January. Apparently supermarket car parks are a good place for bird watching because they are landscaped with berry bearing shrubs; I have had some very instructive conversations with the chap who tends the trollies at Tesco. 

Ivy is also good in the summer for butterflies - little blue ones in particular. Ivy blossom is not white but a cream which is almost yellow. It flowers in autumn, two seasons later than holly and apple. 

These are some photographs that I have taken during the last year.

And an article by me wouldn't be complete without a pub sign or three. These are the Holly Tree at Forest Gate, the Oak and Ivy in Hawkhurst and the Ivy Tavern in Lincoln.

Merry Christmas to you all!


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