Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Holly and the Ivy

This weekend was travel time--to Maryland, northern Virginia and eastern West Virginia, presenting the Here We Come A-Caroling! program with my friend Jeff Seager. I had two new songs ready and was really looking forward to being able to share them. Jeff had also been working on a new song or two, and with these additions we had a fresh program to offer our audiences.

 I do love to sing! The first of these is one I've had on my mind for several years to add to my repertoire, The Holly and the Ivy. I've been singing The Holly Bears a Berry, but the other kept calling to me and I finally got down to it and learned not just the song but a little of its history and more of the folklore about these two evergreens. For example, did you know that holly was once a forage shrub for livestock? It's hard to imagine cattle being happy about munching thorns, but there are actually about 400 varieties of holly, some less thorny than others. And new growth is less prickly so perhaps it was more palatable than we think.

Holly, in early Britain, was considered a male plant (today we know that there are actually male and female holly plants, and that it takes both to produce any red berries) and ivy female, probably because of its clinging nature (humph!). Holly was for good luck, ivy was believed to be bad luck. Ivy was never brought into a home where someone was ill, and any holly or vining plants would be removed if someone fell ill.

Young ladies would use a pin to etch the name of the one they loved onto a holly leaf and sew the leaf into their nightgown. Supposedly it would help them dream of their love, and perhaps telepathically convince him to fall in love too. That just sounds painful to me--but then, perhaps this was one way to teach girls that love could be a prickly affair!

Here's one I plan to try this year: pick a fresh holly leaf and place it on a glass of water on New Year's Eve. Check it 24 hours later; if the leaf is still fresh and green it portends a good year. But if it's spotted and/or turning brown, gird your loins my friends because bad luck is coming your way.

Greenery was never brought into the house in the old days until Christmas Eve. This is because people believed the veil between the spirit world and the living world was thinnest and even torn at this dark time of year; if evil spirits saw merriment being planned, they might show up and wreck the fun. This was the time for ghost stories, and there are several old tales that were often told at this time of year.

All holiday greens needed to be disposed of by burning, because doing anything else might bring bad things to you. Now, I'm not telling you what to do, I'm just sayin'.

But back to the song. Here are the lyrics, and here's a link to a beautiful rendition of it on youtube.


The Holly and the Ivy

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.

Refrain:

Oh, 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

Refrain

The holly bears a berry as red as any blood,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to do poor sinners good.

Refrain

The holly bears a prickle as sharp as any thorn,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ on Christmas Day in the morn.

Refrain

The holly bears a bark as bitter as any gall,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ for to redeem us all.

Refrain

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.


Refrain



Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.

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