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"The Holly and the Ivy "

Meaning Behind a Curious Christmas Carol

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Christmas holly trees

Holly bears evergreen leaves and red berries.

David Beaulieu

Those of you familiar with "The Holly and the Ivy" have perhaps puzzled over the meaning behind this old (17th-18th century) Christmas carol. Landscaping enthusiasts, in particular, are bound to question why the carol couples two seemingly unrelated evergreen plants. Besides, if you take a close look at the lyrics, it's hard not to wonder how it is that the ivy came to earn top billing alongside the holly when, in fact, it is hardly mentioned at all in the lyrics.

The Holly and the Ivy as Landscape Plants

There are hundreds of species of holly, and the plants come in all sizes, ranging from spreading dwarf holly shrubs 6" in height to holly trees 70' tall. Their shapes vary from rounded to pyramidal to columnar. Landscaping enthusiasts use this versatile plant in a number of different ways, including as foundation plantings. Learn more about holly by consulting the following article:

Holly Shrubs

The ability of English ivy to grow in shade suggests this vine as a possible ground cover for problematic areas under trees, where most grasses do not grow well. Boasting a vigorous, dense growth habit, it can be an effective ground cover where the object is to crowd out weeds and/or prevent erosion. But English ivy has generally fallen out of favor in North America, where it is considered an invasive plant. Learn more about English ivy (no relation to poison ivy!) by consulting the following article:

English Ivy

"The Holly and the Ivy": History of Evergreen Usage for Winter Cheer

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.

According to "The Green Mountain Gardener," Dr. Leonard Perry, ancient pagans fashioned ivy "into wreaths and garlands for decorations during the winter months." Ivy had close ties with the Roman god of wine, Bacchus (Dionysus). Holly, meanwhile, figured prominently in the Roman celebration of the Saturnalia (upon which the Christmas holiday was directly modeled), as it was considered sacred to Saturn. Among the Celts, holly played a major role in summer and winter solstice observances.

Holly and other evergreens were subsequently adopted by common Christians as Christmas decorations in Roman times. This, despite protests from disapproving Church Fathers, who regarded the decorations as "too pagan." Such protests notwithstanding, evergreen decorations were well on their way to becoming part of the Christmas tradition, symbols of the pagan past co-opted by the new religion.

"The Holly and the Ivy": Misleading Title?

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 (sans chorus), so that we may take a closer look:

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.

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.

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.

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. Here's how I read that symbolism (and this is the general consensus on the subject):

  • Holly's "white as lily" flower in the second stanza is an allusion to Christ's purity, through Mary.
  • In the third stanza, a correlation is drawn between the red color of holly's berry and Christ's blood.
  • Holly's thorny "prickle" in the fourth stanza is an allusion to the "crown of thorns" worn by Christ.
  • And the bitter taste of holly's bark mentioned in the fifth stanza? This could be a reference to the drink offered Christ as he hung on the cross.

But where does the ivy come into play in the Christmas carol, "The Holly and the Ivy?" I tackle that question on Page 2, where I consider the older meaning behind "The Holly and the Ivy"....

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