Tree-Hugging Dirt Worship

December 7, 2010

The Holly and the Ivy

Filed under: gardening, music — paragardener @ 3:50 pm

“The Holly and the Ivy,” as we know it, was set down c. 1871 by Rev. Henry Ramsden Bramley in a book called “Christmas Carols, New and Old.” The scanned book is beautiful, and contains 5 or 6 songs that are still hits. “The Holly and the Ivy” was one of Rev. Bramley’s “Old” carols — how old, no one can say. Historians know that holly and ivy have been traditional wintertime decorations in English homes and churches since the high middle ages, though occasionally banned by a cranky Church.

Except for the first and last verse, each verse begins with a description of some property of the holly plant. It seems like the next lines would relate that property to something of mystical or practical value, but instead the song switches to praising mother Mary. Were pagan mysteries crudely redacted here, or what?

Note: click on the images for attribution and sharing license.

Holly Flowers

A blossom, as white as lily flower. In the language of flowers, holly represents foresight and defense (a holly blossom delivery indicates: I dare not approach!) White lilies, on the other hand, represent purity and sweetness.

Red berries, pointy leaves.

A prickle, as sharp as any thorn (built into the leaves): and, a berry, as red as any blood.

And let us not forget a bark, as bitter as any gall.

Everyone knows what the leaves and berries look like, but I did not realize that holly is a significant tree, up to 70 feet tall and 3 feet across. Young plants are very shrubby. The tree is evergreen, and birds do not eat its bitter berries until they have been softened up by repeated freezing. The fact of holly looking beautiful and attracting birds deep into wintertime is enough to explain its seasonal popularity.

Bark bitter as any gall? Perhaps the song once referred to holly’s medicinal properties. Holly is poisonous, causing gastrointestinal distress and sometimes stupor but almost never death. It has been used in folk medicine, as summarized by Inchem: “Ilex aquifolium (infusion or decoction of dried leaves) is traditionally used for rheumatism; for its antipyretic properties; and for its astringent, diuretic and expectorant effects. Ilex aquifolium is also occasionally used in homeopathic medicine.” Not all of the active principles are well characterized. As for the bark itself, it was boiled for a long time, mixed with oils, and used as a sticky trap!

In any case, the search for “the holly code” ended here — the next older version of the song goes in a completely different direction. “The Contest of the Holly and the Ivy” is a weird song with definitely premodern English, featuring such oddities as an owl that cries “How! How!” Holly represents masculinity, warmth, and joy, while Ivy represents femininity, cold, and sorrow. Well, at least Ivy gets her own verses! The song begins thus:

“Holly standeth 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.”

“Wis” means “know most assuredly.” Experts in English history think that Ivy’s introductory line is a reference to being placed outside vinters’ doors, sort of like an evergreen grapevine signaling the unlettered. Holly eventually wins the contest as supposedly only the owl will eat Ivy’s black berries, but this runs against what nature watchers actually see — over 70 species of birds feeding on the purple-black ivy berries.

Although ivy has been on this continent for hundreds of years, it still tends to jump its fences and become an invasive, creating “ivy deserts” in the same manner as kudzu. So, I will not be planting any in the medicinal garden. Ivy leaves and berries are consumed as an expectorant, clearing the lungs, though they can be mildly toxic in overdose. Ivy probably lacks holly’s reputation as a poison because it isn’t quite so damned attractive!

In sum: imagine yourself as an English peasant of the late middle ages, wearing your burlap sack. You live in a little hut constructed partially of cow shit. It is cold, overcast, and the landscape is whited out. But, hey, it’s Christmas, a time to enjoy and let loose. Gather the family and walk to church.

Inside, a thousand candles are burning, the choir is sweetly singing and the hall is decked out with boughs of holly and garlands of ivy — the most brightness and green you’ve seen in a month! Perhaps the deer will really keep running and the sun will keep rising…


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