The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown,
Of all trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown...

Pope Gregory I

Our modern Christmas celebrations sit firmly on the shoulders of earlier pagan midwinter festivals like Yule and Saturnalia and many of their beliefs and practises remain with us to this day. In fact so popular were many of these pre-Christian customs that in the late 6th century Pope Gregory 1 wrote to Augustine of Canterbury advising him to permit and even encourage their continuing use if they were “pleasing to the Almighty”…

St Augustine of Canterbury

“Provide us good cheer, for thou knowst the old guise;
Old customs that good be let no man despise.

THOMAS TUSSER (1524 – 3 May 1580)

One such was the tradition of decorating houses and holy places with evergreens like holly and ivy. In earlier times it was believed that holly was peculiarly harmful to witches and trolls. In the west of England maidens were advised to hang a spring of berried holly over their beds on Christmas Eve to ward off ‘mischievous goblins’. By the time the plant with its prickles and blood red berries was adopted by Christians it was seen as a reference to Christ’s crown of thorns. In Germany a sprig of holly that had been used to decorate a church was regarded as a sure-fire charm against being struck by lightning. In Cornwell it was thought to ensure good luck all year round.

The holly and the ivy

Ivy on the other hand came with a far less appealing reputation. Remembered as being the badge of Bacchus, the god of the grape harvest, wine, ritual madness and religious ecstasy ivy was hardly the thing to recommend itself to Pope Gregory 1 or Augustine of Canterbury. Others were put off by the thought that ivy is the same sombre foliage that grows over gravestones!

‘Creeping where grim death has been,
A rare old plant is the ivy green’

THE IVY GREEN by Charles Dickens

There were others however who saw the ivy as a symbol of human frailty resolutely clinging to divine strength and finding comfort in it…

“Ivy is soft and meek of speech,
Against all bale she is bliss,
Well is he that may her reach;

Veni coronaberis." (I came crowned!)

In her 1914 study “Ancient English Christmas Carols” the influential medieval scholar Edith Rickert sees the rivalry between the holly and ivy as a contest between man and woman…

Edith Rickert

“The two plants most characteristic of the season of the year seem to have been impersonated — holly by young men, ivy by maidens; …in the form of a debate or contention as to the respective merits of each. In the ’Gentleman’s Magazine’ for 1779, is mentioned a Shrovetide custom in East Kent which illustrates this old contention. The girls of a village burn a “Holly Boy” stolen from the boys; and the boys an “Ivy Girl” stolen from the girls, each in different parts of the village. The root idea seems to be whether the master or the mistress shall rule the household."

In William Hone’s 1823 Ancient Mysteries Described, he refers to a Medieval carol that picks up on this antagonism…

Holly And The Ivy music

“Holly stands in the hall, fair to behold:

Ivy stands without the door, she is full sore a cold.
Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be I wis;
Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is.
Holly and his merry men, they dance and they sing,
Ivy and her maidens, they weep and they wring.
Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be I wis;
Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is."

The same contest but with a different conclusion reveals itself in a 15th century carol, “Holvyr And Heyvy Made A Gret Party”…

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 loved and proud,
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.


And in the carol the two plants are finally reconciled, one to the other. Perhaps this is the lesson of the Christmas season. If we are to have a future on the small blue-green planet that we share we must stand together in peace, cooperation and love. As my old Granny used to sing…

‘Just like the ivy on that old garden wall
Clinging so tightly, what e’er may befall
As you grow older I’ll be constant and true
And just like the ivy, I’ll cling to you.’


The Holly and the Ivy

The choir at King’s College Cambridge singing The Holly and the Ivy arr Walford Davies

— from Martyn Day