"The Holly and the Ivy": History Behind the Song

Meaning of This Curious Christmas Carol

A wall covered with English ivy, with a window with a window box filled with flowers.
English ivy is often used to cover walls. Premium UIG/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Those of you familiar with "The Holly and the Ivy" have perhaps puzzled over the meaning behind this old (17th-18th century) Christmas carol. Landscaping enthusiasts, in particular, are bound to question why the carol couples two seemingly unrelated evergreen plants. Besides, if you take a close look at the lyrics, it is hard not to wonder how it is that the ivy came to earn top billing alongside the holly when, in fact, it is hardly mentioned at all in the lyrics.

Holly and Ivy as Landscape Plants

There are hundreds of species of holly plants (Ilex), and the plants come in all sizes, ranging from spreading dwarf holly shrubs 6 inches in height to holly trees 70 feet tall. Their shapes vary from rounded to pyramidal to columnar. Landscaping enthusiasts use this versatile plant in a number of different ways, including as foundation plantings

The ability of English ivy vine (Hedera helix) to grow in shade suggests this plant as a possible ground cover for problematic areas under trees, where most grasses do not grow well. Boasting a vigorous, dense growth habit, it can be an effective ground cover where the object is to crowd out weeds and/or prevent erosion. But English ivy has generally fallen out of favor in North America, where it is considered an invasive plant. It is not, however, related to poison ivy.

History of the Use of Evergreens for Winter Cheer

Before we get to the lyrics of "The Holly and the Ivy," let's back up a bit -- to gain some historical perspective.

Pagans had customarily decorated in winter with evergreens culled from the landscape long before the birth of Christianity. We can still identify with their thought-process, even today: When everything else on the landscape is dead or dormant, evergreens remind us of better times to come -- the return of a green landscape in spring.

According to Dr. Leonard Perry, ivy was used as a decoration way back in Roman times. So was holly, which figured prominently in the Roman celebration of the Saturnalia (upon which the Christmas holiday was directly modeled), as it was considered sacred to Saturn. Among the Celts, holly played a major role in summer and winter solstice observances.

Holly and other evergreens were subsequently adopted by common Christians as Christmas decorations in Roman times. This, despite protests from disapproving Church Fathers, who regarded the decorations as too pagan. Such protests notwithstanding, evergreen decorations were well on their way to becoming part of the Christmas tradition, symbols of the pagan past co-opted by the new religion.

"The Holly and the Ivy": Misleading Title?

Why evergreens such as holly and ivy came to play such an important role in Christmas celebrations, then, is clear enough. But what is not so apparent, at first glance, is the origin of the title, "The Holly and the Ivy." Is this carol really about holly and ivy? Below its lyrics (sans chorus) are furnished, so that we may take a closer look:

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.

The holly bears a blossom
As white as lily flower
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To be our sweet Saviour.

The holly bears a berry
As red as any blood,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To do poor 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
For to redeem us all.

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.

As can be seen from the verses above, "The Holly and the Ivy" takes a plant (holly) deeply entrenched in the pagan past and imbues it with Christian symbolism. Here is one way to read that symbolism (and this is the general consensus on the subject):

  • Holly's "white as lily" flower in the second stanza is an allusion to Christ's purity, through Mary.
  • In the third stanza, a correlation is drawn between the red color of holly's berry and Christ's blood.
  • Holly's thorny "prickle" in the fourth stanza is an allusion to the "crown of thorns" worn by Christ.
  • And the bitter taste of holly's bark mentioned in the fifth stanza? This could be a reference to the drink offered Christ as he hung on the cross.

So where does the ivy come into play in the song, "The Holly and the Ivy?" Except for its appearance alongside holly in the opening stanza, it is not even mentioned in the song.

If this one, insignificant reference to ivy were struck from the lyrics, in what way would the song suffer? And if your answer is, "Not at all," then the next logical question to ask is: Why is the carol not titled simply, "The Holly," instead of, "The Holly and the Ivy?" Hint: plant symbology is part of the explanation, as is explained below. But first, some history.

The Holly and the Ivy: Battle of the Sexes

The answer may lie in the fact that "The Holly and the Ivy" is based on older songs, such as "The Contest of the Holly and the Ivy."

In "The Contest of the Holly and the Ivy," ivy plays a role equally important to that of holly. The mention of ivy in the first stanza (and the last stanza, which merely repeats the first) in "The Holly and the Ivy" is therefore a hold-over, a remnant from an earlier era, a fragment pointing to music with a very different meaning. The influence of the earlier songs about the holly and the ivy was apparently so strong that the ivy was given a cameo appearance in this one, too -- despite the fact that only the holly has any major role to play in it.

What we see played out in "The Contest of the Holly and the Ivy" and similar songs (perhaps dating back to medieval times) is the rivalry between men and women, thinly disguised as a contest between the holly and ivy. Holly was conceived of as being masculine in the plant symbology of the time, probably because it is more rigid and prickly; while the softer ivy is associated with the feminine in this tradition.

In discussing the symbolism in "The Holly and the Ivy" above, you no doubt noticed that the opening stanza was skipped over. Now you can see why: The symbolism of this stanza harks back to an earlier time and harbors a meaning quite distinct from that of the rest of the song. Consequently, we must treat the opening stanza separately.

The reference to the holly's "crown" in the first stanza should now make more sense, as should the inclusion of the ivy. While pagan memories of a Holly King may play an unconscious role in the "crown" reference, the primary meaning is, quite simply, that the holly and the ivy are vying for supremacy, and holly wins -- this time.

Such was not always the result, however, in these old songs about the rivalry between the holly and the ivy. In "Ivy, Chief Of Trees, It Is," for instance, it is the ivy that carries the day.

Plant Symbology and "The Holly and the Ivy"

The people of earlier epochs were, by and large, closer to the earth than are we moderns. They paid attention to plant relationships that probably escape most 21st-century folks. They were also more inclined to the use of symbolism, including plant symbology.

Noticing an ivy vine in the forest twining itself around a holly tree, for instance, afforded them ample reason to compare the two plants. Out of that comparison, a piece of plant symbology was born. And as a result of that plant symbology, the holly and the ivy will remain intertwined for ages -- not only in the forest, but also in song.