The Holly and the Ivy--The Mediæval Bæbes
Solstice Eve is the perfect occasion to showcase one of those traditional English carols that mix pagan imagery with just a light dusting of Christianity. The Holy and the Ivy may be the loveliest of this genre which usually tends to festivity and were often used in street song begging or wassailing.
The origin of the song are suspected of being quite old but are lost to the midst of time, probably like so many customs suppressed by Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan ascendancy and his attack on “Papist and pagan” Christmas.
The earliest published versions of the carol date to the early 19th Century when there was something of fad for collecting folk songs among gentlemen of leisure and literary curiosity. Several variants were discovered and published. The earliest were in broadsides published anonymously in Birmingham, a Northern industrial center then crowded with displaced rustics dislodged from their tenancies and forced to seek employment in the textile mills and other factories, in 1814.
The earliest printing of The Holly and the Ivy--and 1814 Birmingham broadside.
William Hone’s 1823 work Ancient Mysteries Described, included the holly and the ivy, now are both well grown among an alphabetical list of “Christmas Carols, now annually printed" and were in the author's possession.
The first complete version of the words came in a 1849 book review dating from 1849. The anonymous reviewer introduced the lyrics of carol with an elaborate recommendation:
Instead of passages from Bernard Barton [the book under review], however, and Mary Howitt, we think we could have gathered more from the seventeenth century poets; and especially might larger use have been made of that touchingly simple class of religious ballads, which under the name of carols, &c., is so rife throughout the rural districts, and the humbler quarters of England's great towns. Many of these are only orally preserved, but with a little trouble a large number might be recovered. We have before us at this time a collection of carols printed in the cheapest form, at Birmingham, uniting for the most part extreme simplicity, with distinct doctrinal teaching, a combination which constitutes the excellence of a popular religious literature. From this little volume we will extract one which might well take the place of the passage from Milton for Christmas Day. It is called The Holly and the Ivy.
It showed up with variation in two important mid-century collections, Sylvester’s 1861 A Garland of Christmas Carols and Husk’s 1864 Songs of the Nativity. Both were a product of the Victorian Era revival of Christmas as a popular celebration.
The words and melody as now sung were finally standardized in Cecil Sharp’s 1911 collection English Folk-Carols. Previously the words had been set to a variety of folk melodies but Sharp identified his source as “Mrs. Mary Clayton, at Chipping Campden.” That was a small Gloucestershire market town in England’s southwest notable for being far from the Birmingham sources. At least three other melodies for the song had been collected in the same area. The simple melody has a distinctive Tudor era style.
Holly and Ivy together in an English winter scene.
Holly and ivy both remain evergreen through the English winter and were typically used during the hanging of the greens of pre-Christian solstice celebration and were identified with the Green Man. The Catholic Church, always eager to adapt pagan folkways to Christian worship identified holly with Jesus Christ and ivy with his mother Mary.
The song has been recorded by choirs and by some notable performers including Petula Clark, Maddy Prior, Natalie Cole, Loreena McKennitt, and Annie Lenox.
The Mediæval Bæbes in concert.
My favorite is the hauntingly beautiful version by The Mediæval Bæbes, a British musical ensemble founded in 1996 by Dorothy Carter and Katharine Blake and featuring a rotating cast of six to twelve female voices. They recorded it on their 2003 compilation Mistletoe and Wine and in a new rendition on the 2013 Christmas album Of Kings And Angels.