The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

The Contest of the Ivy and the Holly

For Christmas

Words and Music: English Traditional

Compare: A Song Of the Ivy and the Holly (Sandys, 1833)
Nay iuy, nay (Sandys, 1852)

Source: William Henry Husk, Songs of the Nativity. (London: John Camden Hotten, 1868), p. 131.

See Notes under The Holly And The Ivy.

Nay, Ivy, nay, it shall not be, I wis,0
Let Holly have the mastery as the manner is.

1. Holly standeth in the hall fair to behold,
Ivy stands without the door; she is full sore a cold.
    Nay, Ivy, nay, &c.

2. Holly and his merry men, they dancen1 and they sing;
Ivy and her maidens, they weepen1 and they wring.
    Nay, Ivy, nay, &c.

3. Ivy hath a lybe,2 she caught it with the cold,
So may they all have, that with Ivy hold.
    Nay, Ivy, nay, &c.

4. Holly hath berries, as red as any rose,
The foresters, the hunters, keep them from the does.3
    Nay, Ivy, nay, &c.

5. Ivy hath berries as black as any sloe,
There come the owl and eat them as she go.
    Nay, Ivy, nay, &c.

6. Holly hath birds a full fair flock,
The nightingale, the poppinjay, the gentle laverock.
    Nay, Ivy, nay, &c.

7. Good Ivy, [good Ivy,]4 what birds hast thou,
None but the owlet that cries How! How!
    Nay, Ivy, nay, &c.


0. According to Bullen: Assuredly. Ritson gives wys. Return

1. The old form of the plural: dancing and weaping. Return

2. This word is not explained by any Glossary, according to Husk. Bullen and Rickert give the word as "kibe" the meaning of which, Rickert writes, is "chillblain." Bullen notes that the MS. has "lybe" ― "Kybe" = chapped skin. Ritson gives "kybe." Brand and Ellis give "doo" noting that it is "Perhaps doole, pain, fatigue." Return

3. Ritson gives "doos" in the text, but provides, in the footnote "doo", citing the MS. Return

4. Vizetelly gives "Good Ivy, say to us, what birds hast thou." Return

Husk's Note:

This is from a manuscript of Henry IV's time, in the British Museum. It appears that in 1561 W. Copeland paid the Company of Stationers 4d. for a license to print "A ballette entitled holy and hyve." Brand, who has printed this carol in his "Observations on Popular Antiquities," says that from it "it should seem that holly was used only to deck the inside of houses at Christmas, while ivy was used not only as a vintner's sign, but also among the evergreens at funerals."

Also found in Joshua Sylvester, A Garland of Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern Including Some Never Before Given In Any Collection. Edited, With Notes. (London: John Camden Hotten, 1861). Sylvester notes

This quaint Carol is of the time of Henry VI. Stow says, "every man's house of olde time was decked with Holly and Ivie in the winter, especially at Christmas." It appears that formerly it was the custom at this season to set up in each village a long pole, decked with Holly and Ivy, after the fashion of the May-pole in summer time.

From the Stationer's books we learn that W. Copland paid 4d. for a licence from the company, to print " A ballette entitled holy and hyve."

Note that Hugh Keyte, an editor of The New Oxford Book of Carols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992) believes that "Joshua Sylvester" is a pseudonym for a collaboration between William Sandys (1792-1874) and William Henry Husk (1814-1887). See Appendix 4.

Also found in Henry Vizetelly, Christmas With The Poets (London: David Bogue, 1851), who makes the following observation:

It is conjectured, from the second stanza, that the Ivy was not used for the internal decoration of the houses of our forefathers, but we think this conclusion has been come to without sufficient reason. Probably the expression, "Ivy stands without the door," is merely in allusion to the custom of the Ivy being used as a vintner's sign.

He gives the source as the Harleian MSS., No. 5395. Other sources state that it is found in No. 5396.

Also found in John Brand, Observations on Popular Antiquities (With the Additions of Sir Henry Ellis. London: Chatto and Windus, 1888), who note "From this it should seem that holly was used only to deck the inside of houses at Christmas; while ivy was used not only as a vintner's sign, but also among the evergreens at funerals." They further note that the carol was written during the reign of Henry VI. and is in the Harleian Collection of Manuscripts, No. 5396.

Also found in Edith Rickert, Ancient English Christmas Carols: 1400-1700 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1914), p. 264. Rickert gives the first line  of the burden as: "Nay, Ivy, nay, it shall not be ywis." She gives the first line of the first verse as: "Holly stands in the hall, fair to behold." See her note under Holly And Ivy, Made a Great Party.

Also found in A. H. Bullen, A Christmas Garland (London: John C. Nimmo, 1885), pp. 68-70. At page 255-7, Bullen gives the text of two carols from Wright’s “Songs and Carols,” published by the Percy Society: Here Comes Holly That Is So Gent and Holly And Ivy Made A Great Party. He also reproduces The Holly And The Ivy (citing as his source, F. Bloomer of Birmingham). It is the same version as given by Bramley and Stainer.

Joseph Ritson, Ancient Songs and Ballads From The Reign of King Henry the Second To The Revolution. 1790. W. Carew Hazlitt, ed., Third Edition. London: Reeves And Turner, 1877. Repr. Detroit, MI: Singing Tree Press, 1968, pp. 113-14:

From a MS. of Henry the 6ths time. (Bibl. Harl. No. 5396.) Stow, in his "Survey of London," 1598, p. 284, speaking of a long pole preserved in Gisors or Gerards Hall in the City, says it "might be used of olde time (as then the custome was in every parish) to be set up in the streete, in the summer, as a Maypole, ... and to stand in the Hall before the scrine, decked with Holme and Ivie, all the feast of Christmas;" and adds, in the margin, by way of gloss, that "Every mans house of olde time was decked with Holly and Ivie in the winter, especially at Christmas."

It appears from Ames and Herberts "Typographical Antiquities," p. 359, that, in 1561, W. Copland paid 4d. for a licence, from the Stationers company, to print "A ballette entitled holy and hyve."

In the above library (No. 2253) is "A poem upon the contention between the Summer and the Winter," which, if not the original of the following song, may serve to evince the popularity of the subject. It begins thus:

"Un graunt estrif oy lautrer*
Entre este e sire yver,
Ly queux avereit la seignurie" &c.

(The "Debate and Strife between Summer and Winter," printed by Hazlitt (Popular Poetry, iii. 29) seems to be a different composition from this.)

* Ritson notes: "Not Vantrer as in Wan. Cat."

Editor's note: The quotation from Ritson, above, is complete, including the ellipsis and parenthetical comment; nothing has been omitted or added.

The 1829 edition of Ritson is in accord with the Third Edition edited by Hazlitt in 1887. Neither edition contains any musical settings.

Ritson's version of the carol is the same as that given by Husk, although the spelling is more archaic, and it is given in four lines rather than two:

1. Holy stond in the halle
    Fayre to behold,
Ivy stond wythout the dore,
    She is ful sore a-cold.

Nay, Ivy, nay,
    Hyt shal not be, I wys,
Let Holy have the maystry,
    As the maner ys.

See: Nay iuy, nay (From Sandys, 1852; Requires the font "Junicode" font for best display; See notes in F A Q).

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