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The Holly and the Ivy
Report to Moderator Old 06-08-2008 09:25 PM
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By Cheryl Mayoss

Caroling or rejoicing loudly in song during Christmas is a tradition borne many years ago. The word 'carol' means a dance of celebration.

It is said that the first carol was sung by the angels announcing Christ's birth to the shepherds. Others claim that in the Middle ages poor, nomadic minstrels sang in public in exchange for donations.

But no matter how it came to be, Christmas carols are a firm tradition still celebrated today. What is intriguing is that although most of the lyrics are religious, evergreen plants such as the holly (ilex aquifolium) are frequently mentioned too.

A 15th century carol tells of the contest between holly and ivy for the best place in the hall, the holly finally winning as the red berries were found to be far prettier than the black berries of the ivy. The sans day carol, traditionally Cornish, also mentions the berries and 'Deck the hall's with bough's of holly' is the beginning of another popular one. 'The holly and the ivy' carol dates back to the seventeenth century and was revamped by a famous folk music collector Cecil J. Sharp (1859-1924) and included in his collection of songs, hymns and carols of 1911.

In this particular carol, which is undoubtedly religious, the holly's features symbolize Jesus and his suffering. The holly produces a white blossom representing His purity. Its scarlet clusters of berries reflect His blood. The holly also has a sharp prickle, which is a prominent feature of its leaves. This could symbolize the crown worn by Jesus at the time of his death or the thorn could represent the sword, which went into His side.

The holly and the ivy, when they are both full grown,
Of all the trees that are in 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 savior

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 morn

O the rising of the sun, and the running
Of the deer, the playing
Of the merry organ, sweet singing in the choir

Evergreen plants that bear fruit in the winter months have been used for centuries to decorate homes. In the Victorian era evergreens were symbolic of renewed life and the coming of spring.

In a season where nothing flowered, holly, fir and pine were believed to be magical and it was regarded as good luck to adorn your home with greenery. The people at that time were also very superstitious and believed that the ivy (Hedera helix) warded off witches, lightning, evil spirits and ghosts of the dead.

Another folk tale explains the manner in which the holly was brought into the homes. The prickly kind depicted the man, forecasting that he would be in charge the following year. The smooth kind meant the woman would reign. A Victorian merchant in 1851 claimed that he sold 250 000 bushels of holly during the Christmas season, that's how popular it was.

Another tale tells of how the Romans used to send boughs to their friends for good luck during a winter festival called Saturnalia in honor of Saturnus, their God of agriculture, a custom the Christians later adapted.

One old legend says that holly sprang up under the footsteps of Jesus when he walked the earth to the cross and merely holding it brought good luck. In old church calendars it also documented that the churches on Christmas Eve were decked (temple exornate).

Now in the 21st century, having become so technologically advanced and having broken away from so many things of that era, we still cling like ivy to all the old tapestry of traditions and year after year during the festive season we bring greenery into our homes.

So this year as you lay out your ivy and put up your sprigs of holly bear in mind that although they look pretty in your home you will be guarded against all evil forces and you'll be able to sleep soundly at night.
This article is copyrighted. Use of this article in part or whole is strictly prohibited. For reprint, quotation, or excerpt use please contact Merry Network LLC.

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