The Holly and the Ivy: Battle of the Sexes Preserved In Song

I’m fascinated by the ancient origins of various holiday traditions, and occasionally go in search of their roots by way of a good, old fashioned Google search.  Today I had an additional motivating factor: I was searching for the perfect names for two special characters in my latest story.  I’ve decided to name them Holly and Ivy, for they are the perfect opposites, yin and yang.

What follows is an abridged version of The Holly and the Ivy, Meaning Behind a Curious Christmas Carol  by David Beaulieu.  The tale of this song’s origins is a fascinating and convoluted blend of Paganism and Christianity, with religious overtones masking its more esoteric meaning.

“Those of you familiar with “The Holly and the Ivy” have perhaps puzzled over the meaning behind this old (17th-18th century) Christmas carol.  Before we get to the lyrics of “The Holly and the Ivy,” let’s back up a bit — to gain some historical perspective. Pagans had customarily decorated in winter with evergreens culled from the landscape long before the birth of Christianity. We can still identify with their thought-process, even today: when everything else on the landscape is dead or dormant, evergreens remind us of better times to come — the return of a green landscape in spring.

Why evergreens such as holly and ivy came to play such an important role in Christmas celebrations, then, is clear enough. But what isn’t so apparent, at first glance, is the origin of the title, “The Holly and the Ivy.” Is this carol really about holly and ivy? Below I’ve furnished its lyrics, so that we may take a closer look:

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.


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.


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.

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 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.

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.

The reference to the holly’s “crown” in the first stanza should now make more sense, as should the inclusion of the ivy. While pagan memories of a Holly King may play an unconscious role in the “crown” reference, the primary meaning is, quite simply, that the holly and the ivy are vying for supremacy, and holly wins — this time.

Such was not always the result, however, in these old songs about the rivalry between the holly and the ivy. In “Ivy, Chief Of Trees, It Is,” for instance, it is the ivy that carries the day.”

Below are the lyrics for the two related songs, gleaned from various internet sources.

The Contest of the Holly and the Ivy

1. Holly standeth in the hall fair to behold,
Ivy stands without the door; she is full sore a cold.
    Nay, Ivy, nay

2. Holly and his merry men, they dancen and they sing;
Ivy and her maidens, they weepen and they wring.
    Nay, Ivy, nay

3. Ivy hath a lybe, she caught it with the cold,
So may they all have, that with Ivy hold.
    Nay, Ivy, nay

4. Holly hath berries, as red as any rose,
The foresters, the hunters, keep them from the does.
    Nay, Ivy, nay

5. Ivy hath berries as black as any sloe,
There come the owl and eat them as she go.
    Nay, Ivy, nay

6. Holly hath birds a full fair flock,
The nightingale, the poppinjay, the gentle laverock.
    Nay, Ivy, nay

7. Good Ivy, [good Ivy,] what birds hast thou,
None but the owlet that cries How! How!
    Nay, Ivy, nay

Ivy, Chief of Trees, It is

Ivy, chief of trees, it is;
Veni coronaberis.

1. The most worthy is she in town;
    He who says other, says amiss;
Worthy is she to bear the crown;
    Veni coronaberis.

2. Ivy is soft, and meek of speech,
    Against all woe she bringeth bliss;
Happy is he that may her reach:
    Veni coronaberis.

3. Ivy is green, of colour bright,
    Of all trees the chief she is;
And that I prove will now be right;
    Veni coronaberis.

4. Ivy, she beareth berries black;
    God grant to all of us his bliss!
For then we shall nothing lack;
    Veni coronaberis.


The Plague Doctor’s Garb

Indigo may have thought he was just a man in an unpainted Venetian nose mask this Halloween.  But in fact, he was following in the footsteps of Medieval Europe’s finest Plague Doctors.


Considered an early form of hazmat suit, a plague doctor’s clothing consisted of:

•A wide-brimmed black hat worn close to the head. At the time, a wide-brimmed black hat would have been identified a person as a doctor, much the same as how nowadays a hat may identify chefs, soldiers, and workers. The wide-brimmed hat may have also been used as partial shielding from infection.

• A primitive gas mask in the shape of a bird’s beak. A common belief at the time was that the plague was spread by birds. There may have been a belief that by dressing in a bird-like mask, the wearer could draw the plague away from the patient and onto the garment the plague doctor wore. The mask also included red glass eyepieces, which were thought to make the wearer impervious to evil. The beak of the mask was often filled with strongly aromatic herbs and spices to overpower the miasmas or “bad air” which was also thought to carry the plague. At the very least, it may have dulled the smell of unburied corpses, sputum, and ruptured bouboules in plague victims.

• A long, black overcoat. The overcoat worn by the plague doctor was tucked in behind the beak mask at the neckline to minimize skin exposure. It extended to the feet, and was often coated head to toe in suet or wax. A coating of suet may have been used with the thought that the plague could be drawn away from the flesh of the infected victim and either trapped by the suet, or repelled by the wax. The coating of wax likely served as protection against respiratory droplet contamination, but it was not known at the time if coughing carried the plague. It was likely that the overcoat was waxed to simply prevent sputum or other bodily fluids from clinging to it.

• A wooden cane. The cane was used to both direct family members to move the patient, other individuals nearby, and possibly to examine patients without directly touching them.

• Leather breeches. Similar to waders worn by fishermen, leather breeches were worn beneath the cloak to protect the legs and groin from infection. Since the plague often tended to manifest itself first in the lymph nodes, particular attention was paid to protecting the armpits, neck, and groin. It is not known how often or widespread plague doctors were, or how effective they were in treatment of the disease. It’s likely that while offering some protection to the wearer, they may have actually contributed more to the spreading of the disease than its treatment, in that the plague doctor unknowingly served as a vector for infected fleas to move from host to host.

(Plague doctor info gleaned from Wikipedia.  Pictures collected from random sources, especially Deviantart.)