Holly & Ivy
Holly and ivy have been traditional Christmas decorations since at least the fifteenth century. Evergreen Holly, sometimes referred to as “Christ’s thorn”, has carried a Christian symbolism since medieval times. Because Holly maintains its bright colors during the Christmas season, it naturally came to be associated with the Christian holiday.
Christians have found a wealth of symbolism in Holly. The sharpness of the leaves recalls the crown of thorns worn by Jesus; the red berries serve as a reminder of the drops of His blood, and the flamelike shape of the leaves can symbolize God’s burning love for His people. In the popular Christmas carol “The Holly and the Ivy”, Holly represents Jesus and Ivy represents His mother, the Virgin Mary. These words have traditionally been sung to countless folk melodies:
“The holly bears a blossom, as white as the lily flower,
and Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to be our sweet Savior.
The holly bears a berry as red as any blood,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ for to do us sinners good.
The holly bears a prickle as sharp as any thorn,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ on Christmas Day in the morn.
“The holly bears a bark as bitter as any gall,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to redeem us all…”
Holly and Ivy are also related to an older carol, “The Contest of the Ivy and the Holly”, which presents them as traditional symbols of man and woman:
“Holly stands in the hall, fair to behold:
Ivy stands without the door, she is full sore a cold…
Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be I wis;
Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is.
Holly and his merry men, they dance and they sing,
Ivy and her maidens, they weep and they wring.
Ivy hath chapped fingers, she caught them from the cold,
So might they all have, aye, that with ivy hold…
Holly hath berries red as any rose,
The forester, the hunter, keep them from the does.
Ivy hath berries black as any sloe;
There come the owl and eat him as she go…”
Henry VIII once wrote “Green Groweth the Holly” a love song which alludes to holly and ivy resisting winter blasts while remaining green and shiny:
“As the holly groweth green, and never changeth hue,
So I am, ever hath been, unto my lady true.
As the holly groweth green, with ivy all alone
when flowers cannot be seen, and greenwood leaves be gone.
Now unto my lady, promise to her I make,
From all other only, to her I me betake…” If you’re fortunate to have Holly or Ivy in your landscape, take a minute to appreciate the many ways these attractive plants symbolize faith, love, steadfastness and the very spirit of Christmas. I wish all these wonderful sentiments to all the readers of this column, as this holiday season unfolds.