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.

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

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.

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