Sunday, December 23, 2007

December 23


Today, I give you two carols, both of which feature two of our most popular and beloved symbols of Christmas: holly and ivy.

The tradition of decorating the home with evergreens during winter is a truly ancient one. Since pagan times, evergreens have been valued for their ability to retain signs of life in winter-- even, in some instances, producing flowers and berries.

Early Christians displayed evergreen plants in their homes to symbolize everlasting life. Holly, ivy and evergreen herbs such as bay and rosemary were the most commonly used, all with symbolic meanings. Rosemary, for remembrance, and bay, for valour, are still well known. Holly and ivy were a particularly popular combination. The holly was traditionally thought to be "masculine", and the ivy "feminine", thus giving "stability to the home".

The music and most of the text was collected by Cecil Sharp, who heard a woman singing it in Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire, in about 1909. This carol is probably related to an older carol, "The Contest of the Ivy and the Holly", which depicted a contest between the traditional emblems of woman and man.

The Holly and the Ivy
sung by The Choir of King's College, Cambridge

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

O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing of the choir

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" takes a plant deeply entrenched in the pagan past and uses it to portray symbols of Christianity. Holly's "white as lily" flower in the second verse is an allusion to Christ's purity. In the third verse, the red color of holly's berry symbolizes Christ's blood. Holly's thorny "prickle" in the fourth verse is an allusion to the crown of thorns. And the bitter taste of holly's bark mentioned in the fifth verse could be a reference to the drink offered to Christ as he hung on the cross.

There are many other carols and songs that feature holly and ivy. Another one of my favourites is The Sans Day Carol, which originates from Gwennap, Cornwall. The title of the carol refers to St. Day, a Breton saint who had an early "cult" following in that part of England. It is a lovely compliment to the traditional "Holly and the Ivy", and uses much of the same symbolic imagery:

The Sans Day Carol
performed by The Clare College Singers

Now the holly has a berry as white as the milk
And Mary bore Jesus who was wrapped up in silk.
And Mary bore Jesus Christ our Saviour for to be

And the first tree in the greenwood it was the holly
Holly, holly and the first tree in the greenwood it was the holly

Now the Holly bears a berry as green as the grass
And Mary bore Jesus, who died on the cross.
And Mary bore Jesus Christ our Saviour for to be...

Now the Holly bears a berry as black as the coal
And Mary bore Jesus, who died for us all.
And Mary bore Jesus Christ our Saviour for to be...

Now the Holly bears a berry as blood it is red
Then trust we our Saviour who rose from the dead.
And Mary bore Jesus Christ our Saviour for to be...

2 comments:

Karly said...

Thanks for all the Christmas carols! Its been fun!

Hope you all have a Merry Christmas!

Candygirlflies said...

You are most welcome, Karly, my pleasure!! I'll be posting right through Christmas, so keep checking back!

xo CGF

 
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