One of my favorite carols from late childhood comes from early nineteenth century England, though the symbolism dates back to the Middle Ages. I first came into contact with this song during my school’s classic Lessons & Carols celebrations, when we originally sang at least thirty to forty carols, most of which came from the British isles.
The Holly and the Ivy is quite the unusual carol in many respects for it is simple, long, repetitive, and does something that most people absolutely do not want to do on Christmas: think about Golgotha. The medieval allegory associating holly with Christ at Christmas time is quite easily explained. However, it is not about the child of Bethlehem. It is the suffering servant on Good Friday. The crown of thorns – thorns on the leaves. Drops of blood – red berries. The bitter bark of the bush – the gall given to Christ on the cross. And the verses of the carol go through all of the symbols.
Then they all go with this jolly chorus: the rising of the sun, and the running of the deer, the playing of the merry organ and the singing in the choir. Talk about some cognitive dissonance once you start to pay attention.
The honest truth is that in the evergreen holly and ivy (Christ and Mary) we see their endings even in their beginning. Though we may not want to remember the reality, God became flesh for many reasons, including to take up the cross. It is good news for us and this song is a way to teach the many important symbols of the crucifixion to believers like a catechism without them even realizing it.
So, as you listen to this simple classic, enjoy learning a few new tidbits and perhaps consider putting out some holly this season.