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. [Chorus] 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. (Chorus) The holly bears a blossom As red as any blood And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ To be our dear Saviour. (Chorus) The holly bears a prickle As sharp as any thorn And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ On Christmas Day in the morn. (Chorus) The holly bears a bark As bitter as any gall And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ For to redeem us all (chorus) 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.