The Holly & The Ivy


Jon says, “Not a great favourite of mine but it has to be done.” Oh! I rather like this one, but the tune here was a bit of a surprise and the chorus adds to the pleasure of discovering it. There are several different things happening here at once, involving both ancient pagan symbols and Roman festivities being consumed by Christmas. Holly and ivy are two evergreen plants symbolic to ancient winter ritual. Holly with its red berries was also associated with Saturn and more importantly the feast of Saturnalia that Christmas eventually usurped across the Roman Empire. Even so, Holly and ivy wreaths (and mistletoe) remained part of the decorative fabric of Christmas, and still do, despite resistance from the church. The song then uses the holly motif to make allusions through the verses to the purity, blood and crown of thorns of Christ. It’s also curious, however, that apart from appearing in the title, none of ivy’s attributes are described in the same way as the holly. This adds a further strand with the association of the prickly holly with the masculine and the softer ivy with the feminine. It’s the inevitable battle of the sexes and refers back to much older songs. You can read more here, which oddly seems to start off from a gardening perspective before getting into the story. There’s also plenty of detail about the carol, with the suggestion of a broadside print as early as 1710 here with some linked songs as a bonus. Finally Wiki also covers it.

You can buy the December digital album now from all good download stores.


41 Responses to “The Holly & The Ivy”

  1. muzza says:

    A sad old duffer still awake at midnight…… how will I get to sleep with this lusty old chorus ringing in my ears

  2. John says:

    In complete contrast to muzza (because of the 9 hour time difference here on Okinawa) I’ve just got up and can’t think of a better start to the day than to have this marvellous chorus ringing in my ears as I get ready for work.

  3. John Burton says:

    A bit over five hours later, I must commiserate with Muzza.
    I really should go to bed now, we do it about twice the speed though, so sleeping could be a bit tough tonight.

  4. Joe Offer says:

    I know at least two melodies for this song, but I hadn’t heard the melody Jon uses – Jon’s is a very interesting version, not just your run-of-the-mill Holly-Ivy song.

    There is a good Mudcat discussion of the origins of this song here:

    Be sure to follow the crosslinks at the top of the thread to related discussions.

    -Joe Offer-

  5. SRD says:

    My favourite tune for this carol although the version we sing has more notes (if that makes sense). Does anyone know what this tune is called?

  6. Shelley says:

    The words to this always puzzled me as a child, and I hated the tune. This is a much better one and great fun to sing. Lovely harmonies on this rendition.

  7. David says:

    I agree that the version I know is very similar but does vary a little from this. Far superior to that learned in school many, many years ago!

  8. Shelley says:

    Ooh, new background!

  9. Simon says:

    We clearly can’t put one past you Shelley(!!!!), well noted however. It’s our winter look.


  10. Jan says:

    One of my favourites – but I just have to mention Sid Kipper’s version ‘The Ivy and the Holly’!

  11. Phil says:

    I love this tune (and the winter background!).

  12. Jane Mickelborough says:

    Joe Offer says:
    December 14, 2010 at 8:02 am
    I know at least two melodies for this song, but I hadn’t heard the melody Jon uses – Jon’s is a very interesting version, not just your run-of-the-mill Holly-Ivy song.

    But Jon isn’t singing the melody, he’s singing a harmony!

  13. […] The Holly & The Ivy « A Folk Song A Day Holly and ivy are two evergreen plants symbolic to ancient winter ritual. Holly with its red berries was also associated with Saturn and more importantly the feast of Saturnalia that Christmas eventually usurped across the Roman Empire. […]

  14. Jane Ramsden says:

    I love this song, always have, even the “run-of-the-mill Holly-Ivy song!” We used to sing that and later this version at school, but they are the only 2 tunes I know for it.

    I would far rather have this song, which always attracted me because of the Winter nature references, than all the droning congregational religious hymns, which I find ‘samey’ and turgid! Pagan rules!

  15. Jane Bird says:

    I do like this tune – smashing chorus and a good one to belt out.

    The image of the deer at dawn is beautiful and very memorable – I like to think of it as a frosty morning, with a little low-lying mist swirling around.

    Although, sometimes, when I pass a road sign warning me of deer thereabouts (you know, a galloping deer inside a red triangle) I think of “the running of the deer” 🙂 and have that tune running around the back of my head for the next hour or so.

  16. John Bryson says:

    I think this is a great version of this carol to sing, super rendition here

  17. wilmott says:

    Who are all the masses of people singing?
    Incidently, you can sing the better-known tune along with this and it works!

  18. Simon says:

    Wilmott, the chorus were introduced back on Hark Hark and are the same throughout.

  19. Lenora Rose says:

    A nice version, I rather like the feel of this music (Though it’s nagging me that I’ve heard this same tune with something else, most likely a hymn. They love to reuse the good ones.)

    I neither particularly loved nor remotely disliked the more usual version — until I heard Heather Dale’s rather jazz-like version. Which has pretty much soared to the top of my Christmas favourites. Could I find a version on youtube, I’d be tempted to link.

  20. Brian Boyd says:

    I enjoyed Jon’s version of ‘The Holly and the Ivy’.

    This version is identical to one recorded by ‘The Spinners’ for a Christmas LP many moons ago. This is not to detract from anything.

    Both rousing anthems.

  21. Phil says:

    A year on, I’ve just uploaded my own versions of this song and the Boar’s Head Carol to 52 Folk Songs:

    The Holly and the Ivy

    The Boar’s Head Carol

    The harmonies are partly borrowed from Jon and partly worked out myself. Not to detract from the H & the I, but I think the BHC came out particularly well.

  22. Peter Walsh says:

    As Simon points out in the notes, the words are all about the holly and the poor ivy hardly gets a mention! Fantastic tune to this one… rendered beautifully by the chorus singers again!

  23. Peter Walsh says:

    Just listened to your version Phil – you sound great on Holly and the Ivy! Well sung!

  24. Diana says:

    The tune was a surprise and there was I ready to sing along with it! Still it was good and so very different from the tune I associate with this carol.

    Well Peter – this isn’t a case of “great minds think alike” cos adem and eve never entered my head. Very witty of you I must add. Will try to drop the “—-” theme to deter Jane from wandering onto a new track or should that be tack?

  25. Jane Ramsden says:

    Io, Saturnalia! Knew there was a reason I loved this song so much, which is still being sung to the more well-known to my Yorkshire ears! We are exceptional in God’s Own County! Hahahahaha!

    However, despite Saturnalia, I am not tempted to go into any more di-vest-ing, of nighties or otherwise! (Such shamefulness is all Adem and Eve’s fault, of course!) Let it be noTed that I tend to diversify where pertinent to the song, folk in general, or a smattering of relaTed social history for ‘edukashunal’ edification! Yorkshire white working class were always big on ‘edification’ in t’olden days….

  26. Jane Ramsden says:

    I’ve found a YouTube link to Heather Dale’s jazzier version of ‘Holly, Ivy & Yew’ as mentioned above by Leonora Rose. (What a lovely name! Hope you’re still listening here, Leonora! Lots of other Heather Dale songs on YouTube as well.)

    PS That should read ‘more well-known TUNE’ in the entry above! The JaJoDi spelling bug strikes agin! And I’m changing my gravatar one more time, given aspersions about the size of the Ramsden hut! Still in better fettle than my gaff… tho’ I have a new toilet… hahahahaha!

  27. Jane Ramsden says:

    And go, Phil, go with yer macaronic! I have not been giving your 52 Songs the attention it deserves, what with being behind on AFSAD due to catly matters et al. I must rectify that!

  28. Diana says:

    Ah Jane, have wanTed and hoped you would be diverTed away from the “—-” theme and it looks like you might have separaTed from it now. Have long suspecTed that you would change tack and be assured that you will be well protecTed from any other references to the “v” word. I hope!!
    Glad your toilet has at last been fixed. Cause for celebration with a G&T perhaps.

  29. muzza (Surrey) says:

    @PHIL…….just listened to your H&I and Boars Head………excellent………
    you are very lucky to have four brothers to sing the excellent harmonies….
    oh what a night you must have had……. keeping them in food and drink!

  30. Phil says:

    Another year on, and I’ve remixed my Holly & Ivy (and Boar’s Head) to make the harmonies blend better. You can find them on my ‘Christmas album’:

    52 Folk Songs – white

  31. Muzza+406days (NW Surrey-UK) says:

    We will be morris dancing to this tune on Boxing day…using the dance steps to the traditional dance ‘Highland Mary’

  32. Liz says:

    Steeleye Span used this tune in their version back in 1972. Love this version even more.

  33. […] the ‘pagan’ reading of the Holly and the Ivy, I can’t do better than quote AFSAD: There are several different things happening here at once, involving both ancient pagan symbols […]

  34. John Cruickshank says:

    The singing is great but the Bass has the tune and the other parts are too prominent especially the tenor, so the tune gets swamped.

  35. John Bryson says:

    The Bishop’s Stortford Folk Club (Stortfolk) Wassailers, of which I am one, sing ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ to this tune. Although now residing in Leicestershire, I do try and get down for at least one tour, which was the case this year.

    Incidentally this is the 29th year of the Wassail. The club will fold in early July as the current venue is changing, but it is hope to keep the Wassail going as long as possible, and to its 30th anniversary.

  36. Old Muzza (NW Surrey-UK) says:

    Just touching base to say that I’m still lurking out here…..sad that the old boys and gals not enjoying the slapstick and repartee of past AFSAD comments circus……and Daina’s family face their first Christmas without her.

  37. John Bryson says:

    Nice to see you loitering Muzza.

    No Wassail tours this year, health issues catching up with some of the Wassailers

  38. OldMuzza(NWSurrey UK) says:

    Still loitering….still waiting my call for the Corvid vaccine

  39. Jane Ramsden says:

    Well, Young Muzza, you will have been booster ‘stabbed’ by now, as have I, & I hope we all have to be safest.
    I have voted for this carol in the Classic FM nation’s favourite carol countdown 2021, with its original tune in mind. That is, the one I think of as original & still think conveys the words, if not the meaning, better than this tune.
    In general, I never find new tunes to old songs as good as the originals. Far better are some new songs that will eventually join the illustrious company of classics, traditional songs, folk or Christmas carol in their own right. One such is ‘Jesus Christ The Apple Tree, ‘ I think.
    Having said this, I am open to hearing new versions & variety. Only then do I realise there are more things in heaven & earth, Horatio, to mis-mangle Shakespoke! Some people will not know the version I know & will perhaps have grown up with this one… or another.
    I am very conscious now how songs could be lost & thank Jon heartily for this site. Aside from the 365 songs he has done here, if it sets people to looking, researching & sharing, we will hold onto more musical heritage. It can be fragile.
    I am betting most people here, educated in the UK, know & sang ‘Blow The Wind Southerly’ at school… perhaps to the point of it being an old chestnut. Yet I met an up & coming young folk trio who sang it to a tune of their own. When I talked to them about it & said how well I knew it, but to a different tune, they said they had never heard of it until came across it looking for songs at EDFSS.
    However, they didn’t like the tune & decided to write their own. I preferred the original, of course, but was tactful enough not to say so. I bet the of-an-age-audience would have sung along to the original tune, which might have surprised them not having heard of it before, that their audience had.
    So many of us would consistently have sung songs from the Vaughn Williams’ songbook in schools in certain decades & that has largely passed out of schools & into the realms of Classic FM, because what has traditional relevance in more multicultural school settings & general life? Our scope has to be broadened, so it is great to have Cecil Sharp House, Mudcat, Mainly Norfolk and this site as a continuing living record.
    Good to see a number of people, like Phil here, have done or are now doing their own folk song year. Particularly uplifting in lockdown, so I can recommend the likes of Kath Reade on FB & the Topic Folk Club, afternoon tea with Paul Walker & Karen Pfeiffer, & Duncan McFarlane’s own Herculean effort at a folk song a day. Hats off to them & all the folk troopers & streamers who have struggled so valiantly to entertain us during the pandemic.

  40. Jane Ramsden says:

    Kath Reade:

    Paul Walker & Karen Pfeiffer

    Duncan McFarlane on YouTube with 31 Winter Tune A Day videos, but check out his many others too:

  41. Jane Ramsden says:

    Correction: I should more accurately say Duncan’s 31 Yuletide Tune A Day YouTube videos, but check out his other Tune A Day offerings of which there are about 318!
    They cover a very wide range of songs, not all traditional, but here is one that is:
    ‘Ca’ The Yowes,’ which Jon has of course also sung on here.
    The fiddler is Anne Brivonese, a member of Duncan’s band.

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