Have you been missing traditional carols in this year’s Winter Holiday Music Festival selection? Today we feature one of the oldest English carols, The Holly and the Ivy. Its origins are shrouded in the mist of time.
The most familiar melody of several that have been set to the is very old and resembles the songs of the Tudor era 1485–1602 which is why it is a favorite of Madrigal Singers.
|The early 19th Century Birmingham broadside that has the earliest surviving version of the lyrics.|
The earliest surviving mention of the song in print occurred in the early 19th Century when collecting folk music became fashionable. The earliest recorded version of the lyrics was in a broadside published by H. Wadsworth in Birmingham between 1814 and ’18. Later Victorian sources claimed that it was on a now lost Broadside published about 1710. Variations of the words were reproduced and the form in which they are most usually sung now first appeared in Cecil Sharp’s 1911 collection English Folk-Carols. Sharp also married the words to the melody we now know.
The holly’s bright red berries were identified with the Blood of Christ and its sharp leaves with the Crown of Thorns and the ivy was said to represent the purity of the Virgin Mary. Versions of the song were sung during the Advent hanging of the greens in country parishes.
The custom of decorating homes with greens around the Winter Solstice pre-dates Christianity. The Druids apparently used the ever-green holly and in Roman Britain greens were hung for Saturnalia. The Christian references in the song as we now sing it may have been grafted onto earlier pagan or rural versions that orally preserved the old traditions.
The earliest recording of the song was collected by Cecil Sharp from Mrs. Mary Clayton, at Chipping Camden, Gloucestershire and can be found in the British museum. Sir Henry Walford Davies wrote a popular choral arrangement that is often performed at the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols and by choirs around the world.
|Annie Lennox's 2010 album included The Holy and the Ivy.|
In addition to choral presentations, many artists have recorded versions of the song. None are lovelier than the rendition of Anne Lennox, the classically trained singer who gained fame as one half of Eurhythmics. It was included in her 2010 album A Christmas Cornucopia.