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"The Holly and the Ivy" is a traditional British Christmas carol. Holly and ivy have been a mainstay of British Christmas decoration for church use since at least the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when they were mentioned regularly in churchwardens’ accounts (Roud 2004). 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. Sir Henry Walford Davies wrote a popular choral arrangement that is often performed at the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols and by choirs around the world. The song is catalogued as Roud Folk Song Index No. 514.
Tune for The Holly and the Ivy
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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.
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
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.
European Holly was sacred to druids who associated it with the winter solstice, and for Romans, holly was considered the plant of Saturn. European Holly has always traditionally had a strong association with Christmas. Henry VIII wrote a love song Green groweth the holly which alludes to holly and ivy resisting winter blasts and not changing their green hue So I am and ever hath been Unto my lady true.
Early English Lyrics by Chambers and Sidgwick, published in 1926, mentions a broadside of 1710 with a version of the carol which begins
An early book mentions the carol as well as a manuscript containing a more ancient song which is, or was, in the British Museum. The book was printed in 1823 and entitled Ancient Mysteries Described: Especially the English Miracle Plays founded on Aprocryphal New Testament Story extant among the unpublished manuscripts in the British Museum by the author, investigative journalist, devout Christian and former satirist, William Hone (1780–1842), and printed at 45 Ludgate Hill London. The book contains a list of carols (p 99) described as Christmas Carols now annually Printed including 70. The holly and the ivy, now are both well grown.
The book also describes (p 94) a British Museum manuscript: The same volume contains a song on the Holly and the Ivy which I mention because there is an old Carol on the same subject still printed. The MS begins with,
The music and most of the text was also collected later by Cecil Sharp (1859–1924) from a woman in Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire which is also related to the older carol described as: "The Contest of the Ivy and the Holly", a contest between the traditional emblems of woman and man respectively.
There are indications in other manuscripts that in ancient British village life there was a midwinter custom of holding singing-contests between men and women, where the men sang carols praising holly (for its "masculine" qualities) and disparaging ivy, while women sang songs praising the ivy (for its "feminine" qualities) and disparaging holly. (More of the men's songs have been recorded and survived than the women's, as in the examples above.) The resolution between the two was under the mistletoe. These three plants are the most prominent green plants in British native woodland during the winter, and for this reason they earned respect from the early country-dwellers and a place in their traditions.
An 1868 collection of carols coupled the words of "The Holly and The Ivy" to an "old French carol".