Friday, December 13, 2013

The Holly and the Ivy

I've often maintained in this blog and elsewhere that Christianity has never strayed far from its pagan roots. A case in point is the Christmas carol "The Holly and the Ivy."  Both holly and ivy were were important to pre-Christian Europe.  Holly was sacred to druids who associated it with the winter solstice.  Holly was also the sacred plant of Saturn and was used at the Roman Saturnalia festival. Ivy was dedicated to the Roman god Bacchus who is often depicted wearing a wreath of ivy and grapevines.  

Curiously, except for its appearance alongside holly in the opening stanza, ivy isn’t even mentioned in the carol.  Why is this?  To get the answer, you must understand the sexual association with holly and ivy.  In the forests of northern Europe you will offen find ivy entwined with a holly tree.  Holly being rigid and prickly was considered a male plant and ivy, being softer, was considered female.   A body of songs grew from this imagery which extol the virtues of either ivy or holly, as a way of promoting either men or women.  Here is one song, "Holly and Ivy"

Holly and Ivy made a great party,

Who should have the mastery
        In lands where they go.

Then spake Holly, "I am fierce and jolly, 
I will have the mastery
        In lands where they go.

Then spake Ivy, I am proud and loud

And I will have the mastery
        In lands where they go.

Then spake Holly, and set him down on his knee,
"I pray thee, gentle Ivy,
Say me no villany
        In lands where they go.

 In other songs such as "Ivy, Chief of Trees, It is," ivy ends up winning out.

The most worthy is she in town;
He who says other, says amiss;
Worthy is she to bear the crown;
    Veni coronaberis.

Ivy is soft, and meek of speech,
Against all woe she bringeth bliss;
Happy is he that may her reach:
    Veni coronaberis.

Ivy is green, of colour bright,
Of all trees the chief she is;
And that I prove will now be right;
    Veni coronaberis.

Ivy, she beareth berries black;
God grant to all of us his bliss!
For then we shall nothing lack;
    Veni coronaberis.

So, back to our question, the carol, "The Holly and the Ivy" must have come from one of these songs which pomoted holly.   So, holly gets all the endorsements and ivy is hardly mentioned.

All that's left is the question, what's the running of the deer all about?  This refers refers to the custom of going hunting in the forest on the day after the long night of the Winter Solstice. 

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