The holly and the ivy, when they are both full grown, of all the trees that are in the wood the holly bears the crown. The rising of the sun and the running of the deer. The playing of the merry organ, sweet singing in the choir.
This charming carol was first published in its current form during the nineteenth century. Though many believe it may have far more ancient (and pagan… gasp) origins.
The song’s verses take us through different aspects of the holly bush to connect them as symbols of Christ’s importance. These include the white blossom to represent Mary who bore the Savior, the berry to represent Christ’s blood, and the bitterness of the bark that draws our attention to the purpose of Christ’s birth.
Yes, as this hymn reminds us, in certain ways we can say that the Christ-child was born to die. However, it may do us some good to remember that Jesus is God’s own self made flesh. Our God came into the world, lived a human life, displayed God’s purposes for us and the world, and then showed us the great depths of God’s love for us.
Unlike the pagan gods who were known for their selfish and often ruthless qualities, our God did the exact opposite in becoming like us and saving us from ourselves. Perhaps that is the key message of this carol (and why it has survived so long): even the creation reminds us of how beloved we are.