Bombarded by the vivid colors of our modern society (starting with images on computer screens), we easily lose our sense of nature’s colors. Advent gives us a chance to appreciate the beauty of the winterscape and to enjoy one of winter’s most enticing colors: the evergreen.
In particular, let’s consider two evergreens linked with Christmas: holly and ivy. We link them because of the song “The Holly and the Ivy.” But their relationship goes back even further.
Holly is in a category of evergreens that includes live oak and gymnosperms. These types are differentiated from conifers (hemlocks, cedars) andangiosperms, like eucalyptus.
Holly is perhaps the most famous evergreen associated with Christmas, but legends and myths about its powers stretch back thousands of years, especially in Celtic culture where Holly is linked to druid worship. Because of those associations, the early church fathers were reluctant to accept holly into the church as a decoration (a fate that also affected the Christmas tree).
Holly (Ilex) is a genus of more than 400 flowering plants in the family aquifoliaceae. And while we know it mostly through sprigs woven into wreaths and placed around candles, it can grow into quite a large tree. Holly adapts to most soils and is a favorite of landscapers because it trims nicely into hedges. And that’s usually where most children encounter its prickly leaves! I know I did as a child in the Virginia mountains: it looked so pretty until, ouch, those thorns met my hands.
In Medieval and Renaissance times, holly was used as winter forage for livestock. Holly berries soften after winter freezes and become an important source of winter food for birds. Due to its thick foliage, birds find refuge in holly. Certain types of holly can be brewed for tea.
The wood of holly is dense and can be sanded to a smooth finish. Holly was a preferred wood for the spinning rod of the spinning wheel, as the threads would not catch.
So, we have a plant for all purposes. And that partly explains the affection people have for it.
What about holly within Christian tradition? First, the evergreen holly leaves symbolize life eternal, while the berries stand for Christ’s blood. Those prickly leaves recall the Crown of Thorns. Plus, there are legends that Christ’s cross was made of the wood from holly. Another legend tells how holly sprang up miraculously to hide the Holy Family.
Now, let’s think about ivy. Ivy is more straight-forward. It’s classified as a woody vine. Without question, English Ivy (hedera helix) is the most popular and among the sturdiest variants. It is an impressive climber, feeding up walls to towering heights. As desirable as it is in some landscaping situations, it’s considered an “invasive plant,” able to grow out of control and engulf areas, killing plants beneath it.
In Classical mythology, ivy was a sacred symbol to Bacchus, so you can see why, as with the Christmas tree, the early Church Fathers resisted its inclusion into patterns of Christian worship.
Children are bound to ask if “Christmas” ivy is related to poison ivy. Poison ivy is deciduous, and loses its leaves. The ivy of Christmastime is an evergreen. So, phew, it’s not like that poison ivy we strive to avoid!
Let’s return to the popular song “The Holly and the Ivy.” The text was collected by English ethnographer Cecil Sharpe (1857-1924). He spent decades collecting and publishing folklore that stretched back to Medieval times and earlier. The jaunty, four-part arrangement we often hear sung was created by Sir Henry Walford Davies (1869-1941).
We commonly perceive “The Holly and the Ivy” as a Christmas text, especially with lines like these:
The holly bears a blossom as white as lily flower,And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to be our sweet Savior.
But, in fact, the relationship – indeed, the rivalry – of holly and ivy reaches beyond that. Holly and ivy vied to “rule the forest” in ancient European folklore. And in Medieval games and ceremonies, there were “contests” between holly, viewed as masculine, and ivy, seen as feminine. And so, holly-and-ivy songs and poems are frequently about this the male/female dynamic.
Depending on the text, holly would usually win the competition, but not always. In an old text called Ivy, Chief of Trees She Is, ivy comes out quite well:
Ivy is soft, and meek of speech,Against all woe she bringeth bliss;Happy is he that may her reach:Veni coronaberis.
Prickly, thorny, invasive, engulfing, and filled with layers of meaning – all of this plant business is sounding a bit ominous. And, yet, over time, holly and ivy have become standard symbols of Christmas. We may scratch our heads at our ancestors’ curious beliefs, but what would they say if they walked into a hobby store and saw rows of plastic holly and ivy? They’d definitely scratch their heads at that!