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The following are taken from Sharp's English Folk-Carols (1911), the publication that first established the current words and melody:
An early mention of the carol's title occurs in William Hone's 1823 work Ancient Mysteries Described, which includes "The holly and the ivy, now are both well grown" among an alphabetical list of "Christmas Carols, now annually printed" that were in the author's possession.
The complete words of the carol are found in a book review dating from 1849, in which the reviewer suggested using the text of "The Holly and the Ivy" in place of one of the readings found in the book under discussion. The anonymous reviewer introduced the lyrics of carol thus:
Instead of passages from Bernard Barton, however, and Mary Howitt, we think we could have gathered more from the seventeenth century poets; and especially might larger use have been made of that touchingly simple class of religious ballads, which under the name of carols, &c., is so rife throughout the rural districts, and the humbler quarters of England's great towns. Many of these are only orally preserved, but with a little trouble a large number might be recovered. We have before us at this time a collection of carols printed in the cheapest form, at Birmingham, uniting for the most part extreme simplicity, with distinct doctrinal teaching, a combination which constitutes the excellence of a popular religious literature. From this little volume we will extract one which might well take the place of the passage from Milton for Christmas Day. It is called the "Holly and the Ivy."
The words of the carol were included in Sylvester's 1861 collection A Garland of Christmas Carols where it is claimed to originate from "an old broadside, printed a century and a half since" [i.e. around 1711]: Husk's 1864 Songs of the Nativity also includes the carol, stating:
This carol appears to have nearly escaped the notice of collectors, as it has been reprinted by one alone, who states his copy to have been taken from "an old broadside, printed a century and a half since," i.e. about 1710. It is still retained on the broadsides printed at Birmingham.
Early English Lyrics by Chambers and Sidgwick, published in 1907, repeats Husk's statement.
|Variant||Wadsworth (1814-1818)||Bloomer (1817-1827)||Wrighton (1812-1830)||The Theologian (1849) ||Sylvester (1861) ||Husk (1864) |
|verse 1 line 2: Now are both well grown||X||X||X||X||X||X|
|chorus line 1: The rising of the sun, the sun,||X|
|chorus line 2:
|chorus line 3: The playing of the merry organ||X|
|chorus line 4: Sweet singing of the choir
|chorus line 4: The singing in the choir
The usual melody for the carol was first published in Cecil Sharp's 1911 collection English Folk-Carols. Sharp states that he heard the tune sung by "Mrs. Mary Clayton, at Chipping Camden". Sharp's manuscript transcription of Clayton's singing of the third verse, dated "Jan 13th 1909", is archived in the Cecil Sharp Manuscript Collection at Clare College, Cambridge and viewable online. The melody is notable in being confined to the notes of the hexachord. The words have also been sung to other folk melodies, with three further tunes having been collected in Gloucestershire alone .
Tune for The Holly and the Ivy
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The early nineteenth-century sources do not provide music for the carol. An 1868 collection of carols coupled the words of "The Holly and The Ivy" to an "old French carol".
Holly, especially the variety found in Europe, is commonly referenced at Christmastime, and is often referred to by the name Christ's thorn. Since medieval times the plant has carried a Christian symbolism, as expressed in this popular Christian Christmas carol "The Holly and the Ivy", in which the holly represents Jesus and the ivy represents His mother, the Virgin Mary. Angie Mostellar discusses the Christian use of holly at Christmas, stating that:
Christians have identified a wealth of symbolism in its form. The sharpness of the leaves help to recall the crown of thorns worn by Jesus; the red berries serve as a reminder of the drops of blood that were shed for salvation; and the shape of the leaves, which resemble flames, can serve to reveal God's burning love for His people. Combined with the fact that holly maintains its bright colors during the Christmas season, it naturally came to be associated with the Christian holiday.
As such, holly and ivy have been a mainstay of British Advent and Christmas decorations for Church use since at least the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when they were mentioned regularly in churchwardens’ accounts (Roud 2004).
Holly and ivy figure in the lyrics of the "Sans Day Carol". The music 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 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.
Hone's 1823 Ancient Mysteries Described, which lists the carol's title as mentioned above, 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 Holly and the Ivy is also related to an older carol described by Sharp as: "The Contest of the Ivy and the Holly", a contest between the traditional emblems of woman and man respectively.
In Germany and Scandinavia the holly, or holy tree, is called "Christ's thorn," from its use in church decorations, and because it bears berries at Christmas-tide.
The British native holly (Ilex aquifolim) has tremendous religious significance at Christmas. Its prickly leave are evocative of the crown of thorns that was placed on Jesus Christ's head at His crucifixion, and its scarlet berries are synonymous with drops of His blood.
Holly is still a popular Christmas decoration among Christian cultures.