Holly and the Ivy, The
DESCRIPTION: "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." The holly's attributes are detailed; each ties to a reason Mary bore Jesus
EARLIEST DATE: 1861 (Sylvester's "Christmas Carols")
KEYWORDS: religious Christmas Jesus nonballad
FOUND IN: Britain(England)
REFERENCES (9 citations):
OBC 38, "The Holly and the Ivy" (1 text, 1 tune)
Silber-FSWB, p. 383, "The Holly And The Ivy" (1 text)
Bronson 54, "The Cherry Tree Carol" (version #29 contains a scrap of "The Holly and the Ivy")
Wells, pp. 199-200, "The Holly and the Ivy" (1 text, 1 tune)
Rickert, pp. 267-268, "The Holly and the Ivy" (1 text, 1 tune)
ADDITIONAL: Walter de la Mare, _Come Hither_, revised edition, 1928; #228, "The Holly and the Ivy" (1 text)
Ian Bradley, _The Penguin Book of Carols_ (1999), #78, "The Holly and the Ivy" (1 text)
Roy Palmer, _The Folklore of Warwickshire_, Rowman and Littlefield, 1976, p. 145, "(The Holly and the Ivy)" (1 text)
cf. "The Holly Bears a Berry" (theme, lyrics)
cf. "Nay, nay, Ive, it may not be, iwis" (Holly-and-ivy lyric, from Richard Hill's manuscript; see Roman Dyboski, _Songs, Carols, and Other Miscellaneous Poems from the Balliol Ms. 354, Richard Hill's Commonplace Book_, #99, pp. 116-117, with a variant text on pp. 189-190) (lyrics); this might possibly be the ancestor of "The Holly and the Ivy," but they are very different as they now stand
NOTES: This clearly derives from the same roots as "The Holly Bears a Berry," and a strong case could be made that they should be considered one song. [Indeed, Kennedy lumps them. - PJS. As does Roud. - RBW] As, however, both are circulated in fairly fixed forms, I decided to separate them.
Jenkins, p. 32, for some reason quotes this song in connection with the 1464 marriage of England's King Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. She does not, however, justify the connection in any way I can see.
Simpson/Roud:, p. 182, declare the holly "the most popular plant for Christmas decorations," and say that its folklore associations are primarily positive -- although some said it should not be brought into the house except at Christmastide. It was often planted by churches to guard against witches. They declare that it has been considered unlucky to cut down a holly tree since at least the fifteenth century.
Pickering, p. 140, mentions a legend that the cross of Jesus was made of holly, and that its berries became red in remembrance of his blood; supposedly they had previously been yellow.
Rickert, who on pp. 262-268 has six holly-and-ivy songs, thinks it is a relic of nature worship and thinks there was a ritual in which young men played holly and girls ivy.
Opie/Tatem, p. 201, note that holly and ivy were often considered paired plants, either as a married couple or as rivals for dominance. According to Binney, p. 177, the holly was considered male and the ivy female. Greene, p. 33, quotes this interesting early verse about their rivalry (also in Rickert, p. 262; Sisam, #219, p. 480):
Holvyr [holly] and Heyvy [ivy] mad a gret party,
Ho xuld [should] have the maystre [mastery]
In londes qwer [where] thei goo.
Evelyn Kendrick Wells, The Ballad Book, pp. 198-199, quotes a "Holly Bears a Berry" ancestor which also seems to refer to this sort of rivalry (different version in Rickert, pp. 265-266, which refers to both holly and ivy bearing berries):
Nay, Ivy, hyt shal not be, iwys;
Let Holy hafe the mastry, as the manner ys.
Greene mentions an old Kentish custom of burning effigies of the "Holly-boy" and "Ivy-girl" at Shrovetide. Thus the linkage is widespread both in time and in space.
Greene, p. 34, points out that palm was generally not available in Britain, so ivy was often substituted on Palm Sunday. This gives another sort of link between holly and ivy: Holly was the plant associated with Jesus's birth, and Ivy with his passion.
The history of this song is vexed even if you ignore the link with "The Holly Bears a Berry." Greene's #93 (p. 160) begins
Grene groweth the holy,
So doth the ive
Thow wynter blastys blow never so hye,
Grene growth the holy.
The song is a farewell to "myne owne lady... my specyall." It appears in British Library MS. Additional 31922, and is credited to none other than Henry VIII. Greene, p. 49, suggests that Henry was turning the holly and ivy "from Christmas decorations into symbols of evergreen love." This obviously implies that they had been Christmas symbols from at least the early sixteenth century. On the other hand, Simpson/Roud, p. 183, declare that holly could be used in love divination, which might be the real reason Henry spoke of it. And ivy, according to p. 150 of Pickering, will bring dreams of future lovers if placed under the pillow.
Simpson/Roud, p. 195, and Greene, #34A (p. 92), both quote a fifteenth century item from British Library MS. Harley 5396:
Holy stond in the hall, fayre to behold;
Ivy dtond without the dore, she ys ful sore a-cold.
Holy and hys mery men, the dawnsyn and they syng;
Ivy and hur maydenys, they wepyn and they wryng.
Sisam, #202, p. 451, gives the title of this as "Holly and his Merry Men" and opens it with the chorus "Nay, Ivy, nay, it shal not be y-wis; Let Holy have the maistry, as the maner is."
These verses are very similar to Greene's #34B, from (Oxford), Balliol College MS. 354 (the Richard Hill manuscript), of the sixteenth century, which however is clearly related to "The Holly Bears a Berry":
Holy berith beris, beris rede ynouwgh;
The thristilcock, the popyngay daunce in every bow.
Welaway, sory ivy, whoat fowles hast thiw,
But the sory howlet, that syntigh, 'How, how?'
Vry berith beris as black as any slo;
Ther commeth the woode-colver and fedith her of tho.
She liftith up her tayll, and she cakkes or she go;
She would not for [a] hundred poundes serve Holy soo.
Greene's #35 and #36, and Sisam's #220, p. 480, are other fifteenth century carols in praise of ivy.
Another early carol, Greene's #7, "Letanundus exultet fidelys chorus, Allelluia," from the fifteenth century, does not mention holly or ivy in the text, but there are inscriptions at the beginning and end mentioning the two plants. - RBW
Last updated in version 4.2
- Binney: Ruth Binney, Nature's Way: lore, legend, fact and fiction, David and Charles, 2006
- Greene: Richard Greene, editor, A Selection of English Carols, Clarendon Medieval and Tudor Series, Oxford/Clarendon Press, 1962
- Jenkins: Elizabeth Jenkins, The Princes in the Tower, Coward McCann, & Geoghan, 1978
- Opie/Tatem: Iona Opie and Moira Tatem, editors, A Dictionary of Superstitions, 1989 (I use the 1999 Barnes & Noble edition)
- Pickering: David Pickering, The Cassell Dictionary of Folklore, Cassell, 1999
- Simpson/Roud: Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud, A Dictionary of English Folklore, Oxford, 2000
- Sisam: Celia and Kenneth Sisam, The Oxford Book of Medieval English Verse, Oxford University Press, 1970; corrected edition 1973
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