The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

The Holly and the Ivy

Words: Traditional

Music: Old French Carol
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Source: Henry Ramsden Bramley and John Stainer, Christmas Carols New and Old, Second Series (London: Novello, Ewer & Co., ca. 1871), Carol #23

Melody Line from Cecil Sharp, English-Folk Carols (1911)
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1. The holly and the ivy,
Now both are full well grown.1
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown.

Oh, the rising of the sun,
The running of the deer.
The playing of the merry organ,
Sweet singing in the quire.2

2. The holly bears a blossom
As white as lily flower;
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To be our sweet Savior. Chorus

3. The holly bears a berry
As red as any blood;
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To do poor sinners good.3 Chorus

4. The holly bears a prickle
As sharp as any thorn;
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
On Christmas day in the morn. Chorus

5. The holly bears a bark
As bitter as any gall;
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
For to redeem us all. Chorus

6. The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown,4
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown. Chorus

[7. The rising of the sun
And the running of the deer,
The playing of the merry organ,
Sweet singing in the choir. Chorus]


1. Sharp gives "When they are both full grown;" A Good Christmas Box gives "Now both are well grown." Return

2. In another version, the final line, 'Sweet singing in the quire.' is repeated. Cecil Sharp substitutes "choir" for "quire," as does Edith Rickert. Sylvester gives "The singing in the choir." In a later version, the refrain is sung twice after the sixth verse. Return

3. Sharp gives "For to do us sinners good. Return

4. Sylvester and A Good Christmas Box give "Now are both well grown," Return

Editor's Note:

Hugh Keyte and Andrew Parrott, in The New Oxford Book of Carols, make the point that the refrain and seventh verse are probably later (and lesser) additions. The first and sixth verses probably represent the original refrain, with verses two through five being the original verses.

In the manner of the ancient carol, the burden is sung at the beginning of the song and after each verse. As such, the song would look like this:

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

1. The holly bears a blossom...

2. The holly bears a berry...

3. The holly bears a prickle...

4. The holly bears a bark...

In this song, the holly stands for Christ, and the fourth line of the burden restates the ultimate victory of Christ over Satan and Sin: Christ bears the crown!

Sheet Music from Henry Ramsden Bramley and John Stainer, Christmas Carols New and Old, Second Series (London: Novello, Ewer & Co., ca 1871), #23.
MIDI / Noteworthy Composer / PDF

Holly_And_The_Ivy_23a.gif (433006 bytes) Holly_And_The_Ivy_23b.gif (401185 bytes)

Sheet Music from Rev. Richard R. Chope, Carols For Use In Church (London: William Clowes & Sons, 1894), Carol #15

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Sheet Music from Rev. Charles Lewis Hutchins, Carols Old and Carols New (Boston: Parish Choir, 1916), Carol #489
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Sheet Music from Martin Shaw and Percy Dearmer, The English Carol Book, First Series (London: A. R. Mowbray & Co., Ltd., 1913), Carol #15

Sheet Music from Cecil Sharp, English-Folk Carols (London: Novello & Co., Ltd., 1911), pp. 17-18, from Gloucestershire.

Sheet Music From Cecil J. Sharp, Folk-Song Carols (London: Novello and Company, Ltd., 1913), No. 1177, pp. 8-9. Novello's School Songs, Book #245, edited by W. G. McNaught.

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Sheet Music from Ralph Dunstan, The Cornish Song Book (London: Reid Bros., Ltd., 1929), p. 89.

19th Century Broadsides from Broadside Ballads Online

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Douce adds. 137(63)
D. Wrighton, 86, Snow-Hill, Birmingham between 1812 and 1830

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Douce adds. 137(25)
T. Bloomer, Printer, Birmingham between 1817 and 1827

See A Garritan Community Christmas (2004) for an MP3:
The Holly and the Ivy, Daniel Powers

See and play the Noteworthy Composer score if you have installed the NoteWorthy Composer Browser Plug-in

Music from Henry Ramsden Bramley and John Stainer, Christmas Carols New and Old, Second Series, #23.

Holly And Ivy - Stainer

Music from Rev. Charles Lewis Hutchins, Carols Old and Carols New, Carol #489

Holly And Ivy - Hutchins

Only tested by Noteworthy for Netscape, Opera, and IE Browsers (Versions 4 or 5)
In my experience, it also works with Firefox.

Several sources state that the first to print this carol was "Joshua Sylvester" (a pseudonym) in Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern (London: John Camden Hotten, 1861).  Note, however, that the 1901 and 1905 reprints omitted a considerable portion of the original volume, including this carol and a number of others on the same theme.

Sylvester, Part IV. Carols In Praise Of The Holly and Ivy

The custom of decking houses and churches with evergreens, towards the close of the year, appears to be of very ancient date ; it being, in fact, one of those remnants of Paganism, which, although forbidden by the councils of the early Christian Church, had obtained too strong a hold on the prejudices of the people to be readily relinquished, as its transmission down to the present day serves to prove.

I am indebted to Mr. Wright's MS. [Songs and Carols] for the following:

Editor's Note:
A longer listing of holly and ivy-themed carols is found at the bottom of the page.

Also found in G. Walters, A Good Christmas Box (Dudley: G. Walters, 1847, Reprinted by Michael Raven, 2007), p. 27.

Also found in Joshua Sylvester, A Garland of Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern (London: John Camden Hotten, 1861):

An old broadside, printed a century and a half since, supplies the following. It does not appear to have been included in a collection before. The curious similes betwixt the holly and certain events in the life of Christ may yet be occasionally heard in the discourse of aged people. The Holly, from time immemorial, has been looked upon as a favoured evergreen, typical of the mission of Our Saviour.

Also found in William Henry Husk, Songs of the Nativity. London: John Camden Hotten, 1868.:

This carol appears to have nearly escaped the notice of collectors, as it has been reprinted by one alone, who states his copy to have been taken from "an old broadside, printed a century and a half since," i.e., about 1710. It is still retained on the broadsheets printed at Birmingham. It is possible that it is an ancient carol. The praise of the holly and ivy was a favourite subject with the mediaeval carolists. The epithet "merry" is applied to the organ by Chaucer, in his Canterbury Tales, where, in a description of the possessions of a poor widow, the Nun's Priests is made to say: --

          "She had a cock, hight Chaunticleer,
In all the land of crowing was none is peer:
His voice was merrier than the merry organ
On mass days that in the church goon."

But later writers almost invariably speak of the instrument in very different terms: -- we have the "pealing organ" of Milton; the "sacred organ" of Dryden; the "deep" organ's "majestic sound" of Congreve; the "deep-mouth'd organ" of Hughes; and "the deep, majestic, solemn, organs" or Pope.

Editor's Note. The "one alone" spoken of by Husk was Joshua Sylvester, whose note is reproduced above. Part of the symbolism of the holly and ivy may be lost today when we can order flowers, but holly and ivy are rare in many parts of the world.

Cecil Sharp, English Folk-Carols (1911)

Sung by Mrs. Mary Clayton, at Chipping Campden.

I have supplemented Mrs. Clayton's words with those of another set recited to me by the late Mrs. Wyatt of East Harptree, Somerset. The only alteration that I have made is in the second stanza, substituting in place of the obviously incorrect "On Christmas day in the morn" (which Mrs. Wyatt gave me) the line given in the text which is the usual broadside rendering. Variants of "The Holly and the Ivy" are printed in Bramley and Stainer's [Second Series, ca. 1871] and Chope's collections. The words are also on a broadside by Wadsworth of Birmingham.

Also found in Edith Rickert, Ancient English Christmas Carols: 1400-1700 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1914), p. 267.

Also found in Henry Vizetelly, Christmas With The Poets (London: David Bogue, 1851).

Note from Pastor Peter Prange

This is one of a series of medieval English carols on the subject of the rivalry between the holly and ivy vying for mastery in the forest. These two plants came to be associated with the sexes, holly being masculine and ivy feminine. In this carol, the holly is used to represent various aspects of Christ's life and the ivy is not discussed at all.

Pastor Prange also pointed out that Sans Day Carol, "Now the holly bears a berry as white as the milk," had a similar theme.

Editor's Note Concerning Holly And Ivy:

The contest between the masculine (holly) and feminine (ivy) elements in nature is a backdrop to this carol about aspects of the life of Christ. Discussions about the ancient pagan mythology concerning holly and ivy often overshadows the true meaning of the carol:

"And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ

Over the centuries, these distinction between the masculine holly and feminine ivy have, to an extent, been blurred (but see this curious account from 1779: Holly-Boy And Ivy-Girl). Holly and ivy became less the battleground and more the backdrop, although their decorative uses may also be of very ancient origin.

When Christmas tide,
    Comes in like a Bride,
with Holly and Ivy clad:
    Twelve dayes in the yeare,
Much mirth and good cheare,
    in every houshold is had...
        (From Drive The Cold Winter Away, with notes)

Perhaps because of their evergreen natures, holly and ivy have been natural decorations during winter celebrations, together with other, similar vegetation including rosemary, bays and mistletoe. Such decoration was common in the home, on light standards on the streets, and in the church (except for mistletoe, according to Brand & Ellis, which retained certain pagan overtones that the churchmen could not abide). The spirit of decoration can be found in Get Ivy And Hull, Woman, Deck Up Thine House and We've Decked The Church With Ivy. Another example, before we leave the topic of yuletide decorations:

The holly and ivy, about the walls wind,
    And shows that we ought to our neighbours be kind,
Inviting each other for pastime and sport
    And where we best fare, there we most do resort...
        (from Old Christmass Returnd - Broadside from the Pepys Collection; see, with notes: All You That To Feasting and Mirth Are Inclin'd (Sandys))

But holly, ivy and the other natural decorations of Christmas had their time as decorations, and that time only. Thus, the poet Robert Herrick (1591-1674) would write that on February 2nd, the Feast of the Purification (and the very, very end of the Christmas-tide):

Down with the rosemary, and so
Down with the bays and mistletoe;
Down with the holly, ivy, all
Wherewith ye deck's the Christmas hall;
That so the superstitious find
Not one least branch there left behind:
For look! How many leaves there be
Neglected there, Maids, trust to me,
So many goblins you shall see.

Finally, the holly would also assume certain symbolism in the life and suffering of Christ. Its use at Christmas was seen as a presage of Good Friday and Easter. The Sans Day Carol (First Line: "Now the holly bears a berry") is a clear example. See also Modryb Marya - Aunt Mary.

Other Songs related to holly and ivy:

Here Comes Holly:

Holly And Ivy Made A Great Party:

Ivy, Chief Of Trees:

Nay, Ivy, Nay:

Nay, Nay, Ivy:

Green grow’th the holly, So doth the ivy:

Other Holly and Ivy Carols

Also see:

John Brand, Observations on Popular Antiquities. With the Additions of Sir Henry Ellis. London: Chatto and Windus, 1888.

From W. Carew Hazlitt, Faith and Folklore. Two Volumes. London: Reeves and Turner, 1905. ("Forming A New Edition of 'The Popular Antiquities of Great Britain' By Brand and Ellis.")

Additional Sources:

Percy Dearmer, et. al., eds., The Oxford Book of Carols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1928)

Earthly Delights: Xmas Carols

William C. Egan, The History of Carols

Hugh Keyte and Andrew Parrott, eds., The New Oxford Book of Carols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Elizabeth Poston, The Penguin Book of Christmas Carols (London: Penguin, 1965)

William L. Simon, ed., The Reader's Digest Merry Christmas Songbook (Pleasantville, NY: Readers Digest Association, revised 2003)

William Studwell, The Christmas Carol Reader (New York: Harrington Park Press, 1995)

Holly, Ilex, is any of several trees and shrubs that belong to the holly family, Aquifoliaceae. Hollys have glossy, evergreen or deciduous leaves, small, inconspicuous flowers, and bright red berries.

In Scandinavia, the evergreen varieties were revered; a sign of defiance to cold and a symbol of life’s continuity. Holly was thought to be the home of wandering spirits. It was hung in homes to assure the occupants good luck. It was assumed that the "points" would snag the evil-intentioned and prevent their entering. When holly was brought into the house, it became an object of lively interest and speculation. It was (incorrectly) believed that the very sharp "pointed" leaves were male, the smoother, female. Thus, the type of holly determined who should "rule the roost" in the coming year. Victorian merchant, Henry Mayhew estimated that London merchants sold 250,000 bushels during the 1851 Christmas.

Many other myths surround this most popular of all Christmas plants:

Many, many other such myths also exist.

Christian tradition assigns significance to Holly. According to tradition the pointed leaves represent the thorns of Christ's Crown. The perennially-green leaves represent eternal life. The red berries represent the blood He shed for our salvation.

There is even a tradition that holly was used to make the crown of thorns. At that time the berries were yellow. In honor to the blood shed by Christ the berries turned red.

While holly is most often pictured as having red berries the berries come in other colors too. One tradition says that white berries represent Jesus purity, green berries the cross of wood, and black berries his death.

Many holly species have the pistillate (berry-bearing flower) on one plant and the staminate (pollen-bearing flower) on another plant. Hollys bear fruit best in colder climates and can withstand most freezing temperatures. American holly, Ilex opaca, a slow-growing evergreen tree, can reach heights of 18 m (60 ft) at maturity. Holly trees can live for 200 years. The leaves are stiff and deep dull-green with spines on the margin. The bright red berries ripen in October and remain through winter. English Holly, Ilex aquifolium, is similar to American holly but has glossier leaves and larger clusters of berries. It is not as hardy as American holly.

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