Celtic Roots of Christmas: Holly and Ivy
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.
From the traditional Christmas Carol “The Holly and the Ivy”
The origin of the song “The Holly and the Ivy” is somewhat misty. While several sources, such as the Financial Times website (https://www.ft.com/content/cffe8a12-a4a4-11e5-8218-6b8ff73aae15 ) say it was published in 1911 by Cecil Sharpe. They also say the author is anonymous. There is debate as to how old the carol is, with some sources dating it to the 15th or 17th centuries and others claiming it is 1,000 years old. Or at least the melody is. Just when the current lyrics were written (and how many other versions have existed over the life of the song) is a question as well. What is indisputable, at least to my mind, is that the lyric blends Christian Celtic and pagan Celtic beliefs and symbols much in the way the Celts (particularly in Ireland) adapted to the new religion by Christianizing (thus preserving) folklore and traditions from the old.
Holly and ivy (along with mistletoe) certainly are a part of Christmas decorating but have you ever asked why? In the next verse of the carol, the lyrics make a link between holly and Christmas:
The holly bears a blossom
As white as lily-flower
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To be our sweet savior.
That verse is distinctly Christian. Another verse speaks of the holly’s berry and, again, makes a connection to Jesus and Mary:
The holly bears a berry
As red as any blood
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To do poor sinners good.
The holly’s sharp leaf is mentioned in still another of the song’s verses. It says, “The holly bears a prickle / As sharp as any thorn,” an obvious allusion to the crown of thorns Jesus of Nazareth would be forced to wear at his crucifixion. The first verse, of course, also uses the imagery of the crown (“The holly bears the crown”). A strand of Christian Celtic folklore claims that the crown of thorns was actually a crown of holly leaves (but then again, another folk belief says the crown was made from blackthorn branches so…). The crown in the first verse, though, may allude to a happier occasion—Christmas—when the King of Kings and the Prince of Peace was born. It could be interpreted that way. Or it could be a sign of the pre-Christian Celtic folk beliefs which show up both in this carol and in Christmas traditions.
Look at the first verse again. It says, “Of all the trees that are in the wood / The holly bears the crown.” In pre-Christian Celtic belief, trees were tremendously significant (see this blog’s posts on Celtic Tree Lore and The Elder Tree for details). The Druids classified them in a hierarchical system. In that system, there were two royal trees: the oak and the holly. In Celtic folklore, there even was a Holly King who battled against the Oak King twice a year. So, in ancient Celtic belief, the holly wears a crown because it is a royal tree. So where is the connection with Christmas? The timing. Each king ruled for one half of the year. The Holly ruled the light half and the Oak King ruled the dark half. One of their bi-yearly confrontations took place at Winter Solstice, which takes place each year around December 21st or 22nd.
So how does ivy come into the picture? Actually, holly and ivy are paired together in Celtic folklore traditions at Beltane. But that’s in the spring, so why is it associated with Christmas? Ivy certainly wasn’t royal nor was it even considered a good plant. The Druids felt it was sinister. Nevertheless, they believed it to be quite powerful, and as a plant which clung onto trees and houses, climbed, and stayed green throughout the dark cold of winter, it came to be a symbol of determination and strength. Ivy also was one of the three pieces of greenery (ivy, holly, and mistletoe) brought into Celtic houses at or around Winter Solstice. This was a kind of sympathetic magic. What is sympathetic magic?
According to Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary, it is magic based on “the assumption that a person or thing can be supernaturally affected through its name or an object representing it” (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sympathetic%20magic) or, as Sir James George Frazier, in The Golden Bough, put it, "Like produces like" (https://www.bartleby.com/196/5.html) . An example of this practice of magic would be a person using a poppet or a voodoo doll and sticking pins into it in order to harm the person the doll represents. In a more positive interpretation, a belief in sympathetic magic is shown in folkloric or even modern herbal medicine. For example, a red or hot spice (such as cinnamon) is believed to excite passion and so is used in love spells, or is used to heal the circulatory system (because blood is red) in blood pressure or other circulatory issues or in healing hearts (physically or metaphorically).
By bringing in the greenery (chiefly holly, ivy, and mistletoe) the Celts believed that they could keep it safe through the winter and insure its return in the spring. Even better, the effect of the magic was reciprocal. Since these plants were evergreens which, unlike other plants and trees, didn’t seem to die in the winter, but survived the cold, dark months, the ancient Celts, who had no guarantee of surviving the long, lean, flu-laden months, brought in and cared for the greenery in the belief that the health and vitality of these plants would be contagious. In other words, they hoped that the evergreens’ ability to stay fresh and alive through the season of cold and darkness would rub off on the people in the house.
Holly and ivy brought with them other magical gifts as well. The Celts believed holly protected them from evil spirits. In addition, they thought holly brought into the house would provide a shelter from the cold for faeries. At the end of winter, the faeries would then bless the members of the household who had sheltered them, so holly became a symbol of good luck and blessing. Ivy, as well, became a symbol of good luck (despite its original reputation for being sinister). Celtic folklore taught that it brought good luck to the entire household of any home in which it grew or grew near. Unless it died. Then the family was doomed! In more recent Celtic times, holly and ivy have been used in bridal bouquets in Ireland. The plants are, from a Celtic point of view, male and female respectively. In a bridal bouquet, ivy symbolizes fidelity and grants fertility.
The third evergreen brought into a Celtic home at Christmas time was and is mistletoe. It brought blessings of love and peace to the household—plus a whole lot more. So much more that there’s a whole post about it (click here to read it).
These evergreen plants brought into Celtic homes at Christmas time symbolize renewal, resurrection, and eternal life, beliefs that fit both pre-Christian and Christian Celtic spirituality. And all three are pretty to look at. Besides, in the dead of winter, it’s just wonderful to be surrounded by lovely, living greenery, isn’t it?
Merry Christmas season! Wishing you peace and joy in the New Year.
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I’m taking a holiday break. The blog will return on January 10th with a post on Scottish Hogmanay and other Celtic New Year’s traditions and folklore.