The Holly and The Ivy, an Old English Christmas Carol

The Holly and The Ivy, an Old English Christmas Carol

The Holly and The Ivy is a traditional English Christmas song with a rich and mysterious history. The established version (see lyrics below) with the lyrics and melody was first published by English folk song collector Cecil Sharp (1859-1924) in 1909. Sharp, in turn, collected the song from from a woman named Mary Clayton in the market town of Chipping Campden in Gloucestershire. Clayton, however, was clearly not the writer of the song. All evidence points to an origin that is far older, possibly over a thousand years prior.

Holly and ivy, the plants, have strong ties to pagan traditions as symbols of fruitfulness, the long-lasting hardy greenery and bright colors emblems of hope during the difficult conditions of harsh winters. The early Church and Christians embraced holly and ivy for similar reasons, applying the symbolism to the everlasting life of Christ and hope in the Resurrection. Because of their evergreen natures, holly and ivy became natural decorations during winter celebrations, together with other evergreens like rosemary, bays, pine, and mistletoe. In other words, holly and ivy fused Christian and Pagan metaphors, and were repeatedly cited in poems, literature, and songs for centuries. Due to this fact, the carol more than likely originated as a poem with varied words, with or without music or a melody.

First verse from an anonymous broadside published by H. Wadsworth, Birmingham, 1814–1818.

“The Holly and The Ivy” is listed as a traditional British folk Christmas Carol, number 514 in the Roud Folk Song Index, a database of nearly 25,000 songs collected from oral tradition in the English language. The song can be traced back to the 17th century, the lyrics comprised of identical lines and stanzas mixed with others that were new or altered. As is typical of oral traditions, versions depended upon who told them and where they were being told… or sung. 

  • The words of the carol appear in three broadsides published in Birmingham in the early 1800s, one example to the right.
  • In William Hone’s 1823 Ancient Mysteries Described, he includes “The holly and the ivy, now are both well grown” among an alphabetical list of “Christmas Carols, now annually printed” that he claimed to own.
  • The words of the carol are found in a book review dating from 1849, in which the reviewer suggested using the text of “The Holly and the Ivy” in place of one of the readings found in the book under discussion.
  • The carol is sheet music #23 by Henry Ramsden Bramley and John Stainer’s Christmas Carols New and Old, Second Series, published in 1871.

Those are a few of several references to “The Holly and The Ivy” pre-dating the standardized version Cecil Sharp published in 1909. This site – The Hymns and Carols of Christmas – gives a more detailed rundown.

Wherever the carol came from, the version reportedly obtained from a simple woman in Gloucestershire was printed in Sharp’s collection, and from there it became an established, albeit lesser known, Christmas carol. A search on Google uncovered a few renditions, including a nice one by King’s College Cambridge in 2008. No offense to Cambridge, but in my opinion it doesn’t get much better than the phenomenal Annie Lennox.

 

 

The Holly and The Ivy

The holly and the ivy
When they are both well 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 in 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,
When they are both full grown
Of all the trees that are in the wood
The holly bears the crown.

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alice p. cannon

My husband and I were just wondering about the origins of this song and your blogpost is wonderful- thank you and happy holidays!

Glynis

I love Christmas Carols! Going to the candlelight Carol service was one of my favourite parts of Christmas! I was in the German choir at school and we sang Oh Tannenbaum and Stille Nacht, in fact I still tend to sing the German words to Silent Night 55 years later!

Judy Buckley

I remember carols round the piano in the 1950s with my grandmother playing a lovely version of the Holly and the Ivy from a book presented to her aunt (daughter of a piano-forte maker, who taught music) in 1871. I’ll try and attach some pictures! Oh, I’m only allowed one! I could add a picture of the book and the presentation painting on the foreleaf.

Judy Buckley

This is the same aunt Rhoda when she was a baby in 1849.

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