“The holly and the ivy/Now are both well grown/Of all the trees that are in the wood/The holly bears the crown”
“The rising of the sun, the sun/The running of the deer/The playing of the merry organ/Sweet singing of the choir.”
These are the words of the first verse and chorus of the popular Christmas carol The Holly and the Ivy as they were published in Birmingham in 1818, which seems to be the first time they appeared in print. Four further verses follow, all referring to properties of the holly and none to the ivy, which merits no mention other than in the first line and title. You will notice, gentle reader, that these first published words differ slightly from the version we sing today. But why, you may wonder, is a carol all about holly called The Holly and the Ivy?
To begin at the beginning, ivy has long been associated with the festive season. In his scholarly tome Flora Britannica, first published by Chatto and Windus in 1996 … a copy of the concise edition of which I possess … the naturalist and author Rickard Mabey writes of a Shropshire farmer who, as recently as the 1930s, would give each cow a sprig of ivy before noon on Christmas Day in the belief this would fend off the devil until Christmas came round again in another twelve months. We know that our Celtic ancestors associated ivy with resurrection and eternity, presumably because it thrived during the dark, depressing months of winter when most plants gave up the ghost and died if they were annuals or, in the case of most perennials, seemed as if they were dying. We know, too, that the Celts used holly and ivy together during their mid-winter rites and that they regarded ivy as a goddess, while holly was a god. Richard Mabey offers an explanation of this in these words: “Red-berried, festive holly was seen as a man’s plant, and the entwining, black-berried ivy as a woman’s”.
The ancient Greeks also regarded ivy as a very special plant, the symbol of fidelity, presumably because of its habit of wrapping itself around other plants, clinging to them in what we might term a loving clinch. For this reason, Greek priests gave a wreath made from ivy to newly-wedded couples to ensure that the marriage would last until the death of one of the partners broke the bond, and as a sign of fertility. And, in only slightly more recent times, the Romans had an interesting legend involving ivy and celebrations, albeit of a more secular nature. Bacchus, the God of Wine, was always depicted wearing a crown of ivy, allegedly to prevent intoxication. But, sadly for any would-be heavy drinker looking for a way to counter an excess of alcohol, Bacchus’ ivy wreath had a solemn origin. According to legend, his son died while playing with his father, who was traumatised by this tragedy. The goddess Gaia took pity on him and transformed his son into ivy, which Bacchus then regarded as a sacred plant. It is certainly possible that the early Christians in the Roman Empire latched on to this belief in the sacred nature of ivy and began to use it as a symbol of their love of God.
What is certain is that ivy and the winter solstice have been associated for millennia and that the plant’s association with Christmas is a crossover from this originally pagan custom. Yet its popularity has declined in recent decades as holly and mistletoe have become more readily available. As for me, my neighbour has ivy in his garden, ivy which seems determined to make its way into my territory in order to hug my holly tree. If I were a true romantic, I would welcome the determination shown by the ivy to make these amorous advances: but in my best bah humbug manner I do everything in my power to arrest its encroachment and deny the plants what I wish you … a very Merry Christmas!