Saturday, December 17, 2016

#404, in which the holly bears the crown

"The Holly and the Ivy" is unusual among the songs we're considering in that there's only very little mention of the Nativity and that the setting of the song is not wintry, but instead verdant. As the title suggests, we sing about plants and greenery, which have their own symbolism. Holly was a sacred plant to druids, and it had a strong relation with the winter solstice, the time of year that came to be associated with Christmas. That's how holly came to be used as a Christmas decoration, and also why green and red are traditional Christmas colors.

The green of the ivy is what it is (symbolic of life? renewal?), but the symbolism of the red of the holly berries should be obvious:
The holly bears a berry,
As red as any blood,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
For to do us sinners good.
The song touches on various aspects of holly--its blossoms, its berries, its thorns--and relates each of them to the birth of the Savior. And then with each chorus, we go back to the world of plants and greenery.
The rising of the sun
And the running of the deer,
The playing of the merry organ,
Sweet singing in the choir.
It's an interesting juxtaposition, to me at least, of a sacred topic and one that isn't. But then, I guess that's what Christmas ends up being much of the time. We have to switch back and forth between celebrating the birth of the Savior and the gift-giving and light-hanging of the season. There's nothing wrong with that, of course; we aren't asked to spend every moment of our lives in deep, soulful contemplation of the divine. We do other things with our lives, too, and that's normal. So, too, I guess, do we sing about the Savior and ivy.

Previously in this series

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Wexford Carol

I Saw Three Ships

We Three Kings

Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella

In the Bleak Midwinter

Little Drummer Boy

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