In Scotland this evening, the 31st of December is called Hogmanay. Usually it is a time of celebration, of gleeful gathering and communal hope. All that this year, however, is not to be. There will be no social revelry, no communality, no first footing of friends and neighbours. For, despite welcome and hopeful news of new vaccines, given the threat of a new variation of Covid our government has decided that social mixing is not to be allowed. Many will feel depressed by all this; yet with the vaccines there is still some sense of hope.

Here is a poem by Thomas Hardy that seems to me to express very well our mixed feelings. “The Darkling Thrush” was written on the 31st December 1900 by Thomas Hardy, a great poet, who has a dark fatalistic streak, but is also open to something at variance with his predisposition.


I leant upon a coppice gate 
   When Frost was spectre-gray, 
And winter's dregs made desolate 
   The weakening eye of day. 
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky 
   Like strings of broken lyres, 
And all mankind that haunted nigh 
   Had sought their household fires.

The land's sharp features seemed to be 
   The Century's corpse outleant, 
His crypt the cloudy canopy, 
   The wind his death-lament. 
The ancient pulse of germ and birth 
   Was shrunken hard and dry, 
And every spirit upon earth 
   Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among 
  The bleak twigs overhead 
In a full-hearted evensong 
  Of joy illimited; 
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small, 
  In blast-beruffled plume,-
Had chosen thus to fling his soul 
  Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carollings 
  Of such ecstatic sound 
Was written on terrestrial things 
  Afar or nigh around, 
That I could think there trembled through 
  His happy good-night air 
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew 
  And I was unaware.

How brilliantly the poet provides the contrast between the dreary deadened limitation of an earthly December with its lack of solid grounding for any kind of optimism and the wondrous outporing of the little bird!. How beautiful is the expression of its creative urge in the face of all bleakness:

An aged thrush, frail, gaunt and small,
   In blast-beruffled plume, 
Had chosen thus to fling his soul 
   Upon the growing gloom.


Let Hardy’s thrush thrush be our example. I love the phrase “fling his soul” . It expresses faith, courage, determination, creativity. May these qualities be ours this coming year.

I wish all readers “A Happy New Year”.


One of my favourite carols is “The Holly and the Ivy” an old carol which developed in the Christian Middle ages from medieval roots.

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 in the choir. 

The holly bears a blossom 
As white and lily flow'r 
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ 
To be our dear Saviour.

The holly bears a blossom 
As red as any blood 
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ 
To be our dear Saviour.

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.

O, the rising of the sun 
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ 
Sweet singing in the choir.


The origin of this carol is very early but its appearance in print is relatively recent. It was “discovered” by the famous English folk song collector Cecil Sharpe in 1913 as sung to its present tune. The song had been passed on orally over the generations from the medieval period. The signs of its origins from pagan times are still clear. The choral lines appear to show a mixture of pagan and church influence: so you get the pleasing combination of the natural and outdoor with indoor church worship: the celebration of the rising of the sun in a world which lived, not by clock time but by the summons of dawn and the deer running in deer parks would have been welcome not just aesthetically but for sport.

In fact there is still extant a cluster of medieval holly and ivy songs which are associated with deeply embedded folk customs, ritual, song and dance. Holly represented the male and ivy the female. In both England and France there was a custom at Shrove-tide ( ie. the period before Lent) to burn effigies of the Holly -Boy carried by girls and the Ivy-Girl by boys. This custom according to R.L.Greene (“Early English Carols” 1935) had its origin in early fertility rites. A development from such were the flyting songs (ie. songs exchanging insults common in the meieval period) between male and female where the two sexes would contend for the “maistrie” with one sex praising its own tree and mocking the other. In one song “Holver and Heivy” after the contention there is reconciliation “essential if life is to go on”. (John Speirs Medieval English Poetry. Faber 1971)

Christianity found that to become accepted, it needed to evolve its practice to accommodate the rituals of country life in the variety of peasant cultures through Europe. The pleasing result was evolution rather than revolution. This is shown by the adaptation of the Christmas story to mid-winter pagan solstice festivals. These developments are illustrated by the development of “The Holly and the Ivy” from the pagan roots as shown taking on Christian imagery. Thus as Christ is King so the Holly is the crown of all trees. The crown’s thorns represents the crown worn by Jesus “King of the Jews” crucified with a crown of thorns. Each colour associated with the tree is then linked with an aspect of the Christian story.

What comes through so many of these medieval carols is the sense of wonder received into peasant consciousness as they sing of the Christmas story and the reception of the “sweet Jesus Christ”. “Sweet” is a very ancient straight from Middle English. But there is no soft sentimentality as there might be today. “How sweet!” we say very easily. But sweetness in the harsh, often physically brutal and difficult world of the Middle Ages-in the carol “sweet” is contrasted with, for instance, “bitter as any gall”- sweetness was something to be treasured in oppostion to the harshly and brutally typical normality. A vision of sweetness opened up a new world. I mean by this not, first and foremost, a new ideological world but a radical development in the consciousness of peoples. Add this sweetness to the wonder along with the background energy and vitality of rising sun and running deer and you get a sense of what makes this carol so precious that it has lasted all these centuries.

Perhaps to live according to a vision of sweetness in a harsh world is an achievement we in our times need to maintain.


What would Christmas be without Christmas carols? There is an astonishing range of these. The exquisite, purely religious ones you will hear, for example, on formal occasions, which so many churches celebrate, like Nine Lessons and Carols. There are the favourites you sing lustily out carol singing as you go round doors in cheery groups Then, there are the more festive ones, you might hear sung in pub gatherings. Perhaps, less welcome, is the constant accompaniment of Christmas music in supermarkets and at other commercially driven networks. (I am tempted to put my hands over my ears every time I hear Bing Crosby’s “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas”!)

The range of settings is fitting. Going back to medieval times carols bring together pagan and folk roots with spreading Christian influences. The original meaning of carol is a circular dance. This would be associated in darkest winter with dancing to celebrate the winter solstice, the shortest day on December 21. The time of the Christmas celebration of the Nativity was deliberately chosen to develop from these pagan roots. St. Francis, in 1223, is said to have introduced songs into Nativity plays to accompany Christian mass. In England mystery plays, like the Coventry -plays that cover the Christian year- would include singing of carols appropriate to the theme.

Wassailing was an early form of carousing carol group singing. A wassail is a drink like mulled wine or mead and wassailing involved going round the area at Christmas and New Year singing songs in exchange for food and drink.

Some of my favourite carols come from this medieval period blending folk assimilation of the Christian story and grafting it on to extant folk songs. Every Christmas for many years, our family has listened to Coope, Boyes and Simpson, a group of traditional folk singers who bring to life many of these ancient carols, in a lively traditional folk style. One of the oldest is “”The Boar’s Head Carol” which initially celebrates Christmas eating at Queen’s Hall in Oxford:

    The Boar's Head Carol

  The boar's head in hand bring I,
Bedecked with bays and rosemary 
I pray you, my masters be merry 
   Quot estis in convivio 
[As you all feast so heartily)

     Caput apri defero
    Reddens laudes Domino.
[Lo behold the hall I bring
Giving praise to God we sing.]

  The boar's head, as I understand
  Is the rarest dish in all this land, 
Which thus bedecked with a gay garland 
    Let us servire cantico.
   [Let us serve with a song]

      Caput apri defero 
    Reddens laudes Domino.

Our steward hath provided this 
In honour of the King of Bliss; 
Which, on this day to be served is 
  In Reginesi atrio.
   (In the Queen's hall.)

      Caput apro defero
    Reddens laudes Domino.

Apart from the Coope, Boyes and Simpson version on CD- “A Garland of Carols” a marvellous rendition of the carol can be found on an album by the great Irish folk band The Chieftains on their album “The Bells of Dublin”. To hear this carol visit You Tube (The Boar’s Head Carol on youtube.com/watch?v=5NiActzCDO subscribed by Sheils Leary)- a version which is superbly illustrated by images of medieval roistering.

(With thanks to Orangemarmalade Books for use of their cover to Aliki’s “Medieval Feast”. The head picture is Sandy’s “Ushering in the Boar’s Head”1852)

NB The next instalment -Part 3 -of the “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is deferred until January.)