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.

Bloomin’ Update 14: The Holly & The Ivy


Like most people at this time of year, I have Christmas carols on the brain.  They’re everywhere: malls, supermarkets, non-stop radio stations — it’s hard not to hum a few bars.  That’s what I’m doing a lot of, especially with “The Holly and the Ivy.”   It’s a moving carol, especially when sung by a choir or by folks dressed up like eskimos. 

In my head, though, the song sounds something like this: “The holly and the ivy. Hmmm. Hmmm. Hmmm. Hmmm.”  I don’t really know the words — and this, my fellow holiday revelers, is the reason for this post.  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.

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