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Monday, December 24, 2007

‘The Holly Bears the Crown’


Druids and Christians, Vanessa Williams and the Kings College Boys Choir pay their respects to ilex.


imageIlex with flower and fruit

Image: via The Holly Tree

Clement A. Miles, an authority on English Christmas customs, has declared in an ominous passive voice, “Holly is hated by witches.”

Name one! We have never met a witch, or anyone else, who hated holly, certainly not at this time of year. Ilex is the season’s glory: leaves that shine, berries that cheer, height that humbles. The prickle of holly’s leaf at the season of Christ’s birth portends the thorns of Holy Week. 

With greater equanimity elsewhere, Miles also writes: “In some old English Christmas carols holly and ivy are put into a curious antagonism, apparently connected with a contest of the sexes. Holly is the men’s plant, ivy the women’s, and the carols are debates as to the respective merits of each. Possibly some sort of rude drama may once have been performed.” There seems loads of drama still, and plenty of rudeness to go around in this competition - we’d call it a draw.

image

Holly tree with fruit (berries) outside the White House, Washington, DC

Photo: Paul Morse

Several folk songs of holly and ivy seem to set “mery” men versus “wepyn” maidens:

Holy and hys mery men they dawnsyn and they syng,

Ivy and hur maydenys they wepyn and they wryng.

Is this male chavinism? Or maybe just 15th century botany’s restatement of Ecclesiastes: to everything, a season.

This Christmas Eve, we are not in much mood for contest—happy to let the holly win. We quote here in full the beloved carol that Cecil Sharp purportedly collected “from a woman in Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire.”

image

The Baltimore and Ohio’s Famous “Holly Tree by the Tracks” at Jackson, MD

Color postcard w/photo by A. Aubrey Bodine, c. 1954

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

O the rising of the sun

And the running of the deer

The playing of the merry organ

Sweet singing of the choir

The holly bears a blossom

As white as lily flower

And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ

To be our sweet Saviour

O the rising of the sun

And the running of the deer

The playing of the merry organ

Sweet singing of the choir

The holly bears a berry

As red as any blood

And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ

To do poor sinners good

O the rising of the sun

And the running of the deer

The playing of the merry organ

Sweet singing of the choir

The holly bears a prickle

As sharp as any thorn;

And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ

On Christmas Day in the morn.

O the rising of the sun

And the running of the deer

The playing of the merry organ

Sweet singing of the choir

The holly bears a bark

As bitter as any gall;

And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ

For to redeem us all.

O the rising of the sun

And the running of the deer

The playing of the merry organ

Sweet singing of the choir

The holly and the ivy

Now both are full well grown,

Of all the trees that are in the wood,

The holly bears the crown.

O the rising of the sun

And the running of the deer

The playing of the merry organ

Sweet singing of the choir

You can find many 21st century versions of the carol, by Natalie Cole, Renee Fleming, and Vanessa Williams, but let’s follow through and hear from the Kings College Chapel Boys Choir.

image

Selling Christmas trees and holly in Washington, DC, circa 1930

Photo: Old Picture

By the way, Miles also writes that in Rutland, “it is deemed unlucky to bring (holly) into a house before Christmas Eve.” (Rather a witchy notion.) So now get out the clippers and have at it! Merry Christmas to all.

 

 



Posted by Julie on 12/24 at 11:21 PM
Art & MediaReligious RitualsSecular CustomsPermalink