Alright, you may think: What has a plant to do with the celebration of Christmas? I’m not even talking Christmas trees today. Most of you probably know that story well enough. I’m talking of a popular Christmas carol, “The Holly and the Ivy”, which was created in Britain in the early nineteenth century. When I first heard it, I found it about as strange as a German one, “O Tannenbaum”, that celebrates a tree. But listening into the stanzas, the English ones turned out to be by far more in the Biblical context. So, today I simply looked up holly and ivy for you.
First of all, holly and ivy are evergreens – which makes sense already in the Christmas context, doesn’t it? Holly is the popular name for ilex or holm-oak; its name derives from an old Germanic word that means hull, and there are 480 species of it, ranging from temperate to subtropical areas. Its red berries are slightly toxic to humans; for children they are deadly! Birds and other animals love them, though, and spread their seeds all over the place. Also, ilex is a perfect hiding place for birds from predators.
In the US commercial field, the growing of ilex has apparently turned into a problem for Nature, as the plants are overgrowing native plants in forests where they are not easily discovered and can be dealt with. Ilex has been placed onto the monitor list of the Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board, whereas in tropical regions, due to environmental destruction, this essential plant for creature nourishment is more and more threatened to be extinct!
Ivy also has toxic berries and is also invasive. Birds love it as nesting place. In horticulture it’s used to hide otherwise uglier features such as walls. Also think off all the European artificial ruins of romanticist palace gardens that were covered in ivy! Not a native plant in the US, ivy has no natural competitors, which makes it a deadly threat to all kinds of plants it starts to cover. Several US states have therefore prohibited its use as a horticultural plant.
Not really Christmassy thoughts, are they? Well, so what makes holly and ivy become so important that they feature in a carol?
Since the Middle Ages, both plants have been symbolic in Christian fate. Holly, also often named “Christ’s thorn” for its red berries, sharp thorns, and flame-shaped leaves (symbolic for God’s burning love) represented Jesus. Ivy with its tendency to cling and stay even with dead material symbolized eternal love, beyond death, and therefore was assigned to the Virgin Mary.
Still, aren’t there plenty of other evergreens that could have served just as well for Christian symbolism? Let’s remember that the church had to deal with a lot of old beliefs of those they tried to mission and turn into Christians. How much easier when they could make use of symbols and beliefs that would meld almost seamlessly into church rituals and symbolism?
Druids thought that leaves of holly protected against evil spirits; which is why they wore it in their hair. Ivy also was said to protect against evil and was brought into the homes. Ivy wreaths in Roman legend also were supposed to prevent drunkenness – funny that Bacchus, God of intoxication, is always pictured with such a wreath. Now, check old illustrations from Dickens’ “Christmas Carol” – the Ghost of Christmas Present is wearing a wreath in John Leech’s picture. Interestingly, this wreath looks like a hybrid of ivy and holly, though Dickens writes distinctly of holly.
Christmas and ghost stories, door wreaths and Christmas card borders, heathenish and Christian symbolism reach into our present. Do we always realize it? Maybe the most when a Christmas carol makes us wonder about its wording and its meaning, we are closest to the roots of our own beliefs. Merry Christmas!