Yule Tune: The Holly & The Ivy (King’s College Choir, Cambridge)


Holly and Ivy

We’re at the halfway point in our Yule Tune odyssey and I thought I would take a look at a very moving carol, “The Holly And The Ivy.”  It’s so moving that I placed it into the category: “Carols That I Love Even Though I Don’t Know The Words.”

In my head, the song sounds something like this: “The holly and the ivy. Hmmm. Hmmm. Hmmm. Hmmm.”  My intention was to locate the lyrics and print them with pictures of, well, holly and ivy.  A simple, no-nonsense post —  until I began the research and uncovered a complicated history of the carol.

To make a long story short, the lyrics are full of controversy and symbolism.  Well before Christianity entered the world stage, early peoples honored the winter months by decorating their homes with evergreens, including holly and ivy.  In fact, ivy was often associated with the Roman god Bacchus, and holly was part of Saturnalia celebrations.  Early Christian leaders tried to change pagan traditions, but they were eventually incorporated into the new religion.

As the lyrics evolved, they became symbolic of Christ’s life.  They also reflected earlier carols that described the battle of the sexes, with the masculine holly challenging the feminine ivy for supremacy.  With very little mention of ivy in the carol, it would seem that holly has won the battle — or is this just another example of the feminine being suppressed by the masculine, which is the basis for a little novel called The DaVinci Code.

Like I said, all I really wanted was a simple post.  Instead, I have a complicated one, as well as a complicated carol.  It’s probably why, now that I think of it, I have a complicated relationship with both of these plants.  I love them.  I hate them.  I love them.

Let me first say that I have ivy growing everywhere: spreading along the ground, rambling on and over fencing, climbing up trees.  I love its lush appearance and its ability to make a wall of green.  But that’s where the love-fest ends.  Ivy does not have low maintenance in its vocabulary.  It plays a huge role in my gardening life as I hack, prune, and yank it to keep it within bounds as it spreads, rambles, and climbs.  And let’s not even talk about the time I had to clean out an ivy-filled area to create a perennial garden.  Bah, humbug — indeed!

Then, there is the holly.  I have a variegated type, and Joe and I have moved it around the yard at least twice.  I hate to part with it, because I do like the leaves — especially at this time of year, when we cut sprigs and bring them into the house.  The thing about holly, though, is that it lulls you into a false sense of security.  Just when you  think it’s lovely, it’s time to do some spring cleaning, and inevitably, I get stuck by the spiny edges of the leaves.  Over and over and over again.  The rest of that gardening day has me muttering something like, “The f%(#*&(n holly and the f&^%%$&n ivy. Hmmm.  Hmmm. Hmmm.  Hmmm.”

At this point, it’s probably best that I let those who know the words — and who can sing it far better than I — show you why it is one of the most beautiful carols ever written.

10 thoughts on “Yule Tune: The Holly & The Ivy (King’s College Choir, Cambridge)

  1. Holy Cow! Spectacular! This is one of my favorite songs. We always had to sing it in school in the choir at the Christmas pageant in the chapel. (Those of us lucky enough to sit on the sides in the choir and not actually BE in the play…) Of course, we didn’t have the lovely accent, and I’m sure none of us understood (or gave a hoot) what the words meant – pretty interesting. Hollies, unfortunately, are banned from my yard for the reasons you cited, and this summer I said heck with the ivy and just mowed over a whole bed of it. Didn’t hurt it a bit! :O) Thanks for the post!

    • Hi Kathy. It is such an amazing sound — so moving and beautiful. I keep a wary eye on the holly during spring cleaning — and I am relentlessly vigilant and brutal with the ivy. I wonder where the music will take us tomorrow.

  2. Had no idea as to the “story behind the song”, very interesting. I do love this version, but also the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s version of it. Yes, I am one of those with multiple versions of many carols on my iPod Holiday Play List . . .

  3. You have me laughing out loud this morning, Kevin! The handbell choir at church is playing The Holly and the Ivy this coming Sunday. It is a beautiful carol. I can send you the lyrics from the United Methodist hymnal, if you like. I, too, have several holly bushes in my yard but, outside of raking the fallen leaves from beneath them, we generally leave them alone! They are vicious!!! And, they are a very good dividing line between our house and that of the neighbors’ – no fence required! 🙂

    • Hi. Glad I got your day off to a funny start. I would love to hear the handbell choir performing this (or any carol, for that matter)! If it makes it to YouTube, let me know. 🙂

  4. I know the words well, but never had any clue what they represented. Rather challenging! You really did your homework! We used to have holly, but took it out and the ivy has been eliminated multiple times–it continues to creep back! Maybe I’ll think of it differently now. 🙂

  5. Sorry….but songs about ivy just make my stress level explode 🙂
    When I was a kid (age, not mentally) my music teacher announced that we were all to stand up in front of the whole class, individually & sing a Christmas song as an end of term exam (teacher’s were cruel back then). Fear took over my body, my hand stooooopidly shot up in the air and I asked to go first to get it over & done with. Fear (and a touch of madness) also made me choose this very tune. Why? I’ll never know. Amazingly I got a B grade which was pretty cool.
    Don’t get me started on OUR fence being destroyed by next door’s ivy. Grrrrrrr
    Off for a lie down x

    • JANE!!! Wow — talk about a tough song to sing! And I do feel your pain when it comes to ivy. I spend a good part of the gardening days trying to control it. The problem is that there are woods behind my property, so the ivy has spread there. Even if I could eliminate it from my yard, it would keep coming back. One day, Joe will find me entangled in it. 🙂

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