My Favorite Carols: The Holly and the Ivy

>> Sunday, November 28, 2010

Since I grew up in the Evangelical/Southern Baptist tradition, I wasn't raised with many of the carols that have become mainstays in the mainline protestant traditions. In fact, in the 1960s, when I was a child, Baptists were only beginning to openly celebrate the Christmas season within the churches, for then, many Baptists still regarded the Christmas church traditions as "too Catholic". I didn't experience the season of Advent, Lessons and Carols, nor the Hanging of the Green (which wasn't brought into Baptist traditions until the 1970s), or Chrismon trees. (Try explaining to a Baptist that "Xmas" isn't an abbreviation that attempts to remove Christ from Christmas, but rather, originates from an early Christian symbol which infuses into a monogram, the Greek letter Chi (X) which was the symbol for Christ and Rho (P) which stands for Christ's crucifixion.)

I became familiar with many Christmas carols because my parents were extremely fond of music and we had records of almost every kind--from classical to some big band jazz--and among my parents' favorites were recordings made by the Robert Shaw Chorale. They were a mainstay in our home and many of our favorite Christmas albums were by them.

The Holly and the Ivy was one of those carols that we never sang in church, but it was familiar to me because it was one of the ones on our Robert Shaw Chorale records.

The Holly and the Ivy is an English traditional Christmas carol. "Holly and ivy have been the mainstay of Christmas decoration for church use since at least the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when they are mentioned regularly in churchwardens’ accounts". Holly and ivy also figure in the lyrics of the "Sans Day Carol". The music and most of the text was first published by Cecil Sharp.

The symbolism of this anonymous carol relates to ancient fertility mythology and the association of the male with holly and good and the female with ivy and evil. It may have accompanied some sort of ritual mating dance. Oddly, the ivy is never mentioned after the first line – are there some lost verses?

The text was first published in a broadside dated 1710, and may have originated somewhere in the Cotswolds. In 1861, it appeared in a collection of carols edited by one Joshua Sylvester, and the Victorians subsequently took it to heart.

The New Oxford Book of Carols points out that the refrain is ‘incoherent and oddly irrelevant [standing] in the same aesthetic relationship to the verse as does Tower Bridge to the Tower of London, and is just the kind of Olde Englishe trumpery that a canny broadside publisher of 1710 might have strung together from stock to eke out his product.’

The tune, ‘The Holly and the Ivy’, was collected by Cecil Sharp who heard it sung by Mrs Mary Clayton of Chipping Campden in 1909.

Other versions, by Allen Percival and Martin Shaw, have failed to supplant it. Several other early carols pursue the holly and the ivy theme. One is found in a Tudor collection, set to a tune attributed to Henry VIII.
--The Story Behind "The Holly and the Ivy"


Debi Butler November 28, 2010 at 8:05 PM  

Wonderful recording! Oddly, not all the verses match the ones I know. I just love traditional songs and coming up on texts (or melodies) that are a bit different from the ones I've heard before. :) Thank you for starting off my Holiday so well!

Oh, and I'm sure the Ivy isn't mentioned again because The Music Master saw he was running long, knew the Ivy stood for women, and thought they were beneath singing about anyway. LOL November 28, 2010 at 10:37 PM  

Just beautiful! I've always known this melody, just didn't put the title of the song and the music together!


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