Friday, November 23, 2012

The Holly and the Ivy

Shiny lustrous dark green leaves, accentuated by bright candy like berries... holly is a holiday icon, a staple of decorating in its real form and many silk ( and plastic...) facsimiles. As a kid growing up in Maryland we had a HUGE holly tree in our yard - lovely to have so much green through the winter. And a veritable apartment building for the birds...

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And at this time of year - the British carol "The Holly and the Ivy " comes to mind. But why holly and ivy at Christmas time?
"The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown,
Of all trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown:
O, the rising of the sun,
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ,
Sweet singing in the choir.

The traditional lyrics link go on to link the red of the berries to Christ's blood, and the prickly leaves to the Crown of Thorns. The ivy is barely mentioned at all, and that was what had me wondering about the roots of the song, perhaps in older Celtic folklore?

Folklorist Cecil Sharp recorded older versions depicting a contest of sorts between Holly ( masculine) and Ivy (feminine):

Holly stands in the hall, fair to behold:
Ivy stands without the door, she is full sore a cold.
Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be I wis;
Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is.
Holly and his merry men, they dance and they sing,
Ivy and her maidens, they weep and they wring.
Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be I wis;
Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is.
There are records of Midwinter dances held in rural villages, complete with singing exchanges between the genders. Resolution - under the mistletoe, naturally! These three plants are very prominent evergreens in the English winter landscape, and as such work their way in to folklore over the years. 

I found a really charming mention of a British Midwinter/Yule tradition: The holly boy and the ivy girl. Representing the masculine and feminine, they sang and processed through town, carrying evergreens to symbolize eternal light and life during the darkest point in the year. 

In Celtic lore, the Holly King ruled over the "dark" half of the year, as days grow shorter. His reign ends at the Winter Solstice, when days gradually become longer...(His counterpart is the Oak King. ) Holly has been brought inside as a garland since ancient times - its evergreen heartiness a symbol of encouragement and fortitude in the bleak winter. Ivy was very popular for decorations, and "decking the halls" during the Victorian era...

And yes - that IS mistletoe they are hanging... stay tuned for folklore on that most merry of plants!

Thank you for stopping by our Holiday Open House. And please feel free to browse our shops. As the season starts today with Black Friday we have many sales and tempting treasures... You can find all the details at our Holiday Open House page.


1 comment :

  1. I was picturing you singing those songs in my head. You were of course dressed in period clothing with others around you (Fairie-con photos must have inspired that brain image)...

    I love holly - back in the background of the garden. I had one close to my perennial beds and moved it because those leafs - brown and dry on the ground - are not pleasant to step on with flip-flops.

    Thanks for posting!


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