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Meaning Behind "The Holly and the Ivy"

A Battle of the Sexes Played Out Through Plant Symbology

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Picture of English ivy.

Picture of English ivy plants.

Courtesy: Missouri Botanical Garden

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?" Hint: plant symbology is part of the explanation, as I explain below. But first, some history....

The Holly and the Ivy: Battle of the Sexes

The answer may lie in the fact that "The Holly and the Ivy" is based on older songs, such as "The Contest of the Holly and the Ivy" (see the Hymns and Carols of Christmas Web site).

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.

In discussing the symbolism in "The Holly and the Ivy" on Page 1, you no doubt noticed that I skipped the opening stanza. But I trust that you can now see why I did so: the symbolism of this stanza harks back to an earlier time and harbors a meaning quite distinct from that of the rest of the song. Consequently, we must treat the opening stanza separately.

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.

Plant Symbology and "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. And as a result of that plant symbology, the holly and the ivy will remain intertwined for ages -- not only in the forest, but also in song.

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