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Tales Of Ye Ol' Holly n' Ivy

Updated on December 22, 2014

The image of Holly, especially abundant with red berries, is one that instinctly focuses our imagination on Yule and Christmas, perhaps more than any other image of this time.

We think of Holly made into wreaths, decorating our Yule Trees, Yule Logs, festive tables and topping our Plum Puddings.

We also think of the red breasted Robin often beside Holly too.

Holly was extremely important as a symbol of the turning sun at mid-winter in the northern hemisphere for thousands of years before part of Christian Christmas celebrations.

In fact, even today, it is not part of the Christ story but a tradition we have preciously held onto, maybe as a reminder that the Christian church, some of them, has called upon this time to celebrate the birth of Christ too.

Ivy's symbolic role at this time seems to be understated and needs encouragement as she is sadly best known as hiding the Wren, servant of the Holly King, that was killed by the Robin, servant of the Oak King.

Considering that the robin's tree, in many other myths, is the birch,

I will try to clear this tale up for you ...

I hope you enjoy the videos of some of the many versions of the Holly and Ivy songs

the mystery of Ivy.

In myth, Ivy is far too often portrayed as the deceiver, such as letting the Robin know where the Wren was hiding, after the Wren had trusted her for sanctuary. Ivy is also told of as being an icy goddess who brings us frost, ice, snow andall that makes us cold..

Here in Ireland and Britain we partner Ivy with Holly, the Jolly Boy, the bringer of warmth and humour that melts Ivy's cold and melancholy.

In parts of England some grain farmers bound a sheaf of grain, from their last harvest, with Ivy and call it the "Ivy Girl" and she is brought to combat with the "Holly Boy".

This combat is reverence to a pre-Christian told competition between the Goddess and God, with the farmers being on the side of Ivy the Goddess. They believe she was the bringer of their harvest and not Holly The God who's trickery, shown through unexpected weather, can reduce or ruin a harvest - very controversial stuff !!!

Ivy was held in high esteem among several ancient tribes as its leaves formed the crown of the bard that he would wear as he spoke.

Ivy was very strongly connected to the Roman god Bacchus, the God of Intoxication who is illustrated and sculptured as wearing a wreath of ivy and grapevines. It is said the Ivy balanced the grapes from the vine to avoid unbalanced drunkeness.

English taverns used to hang signs of an ivy vine over their doors, to indicate the excellence of their brews.

In Egypt, Ivy was the partner of Osiris, the Egyptian god of rebirth. In Egyptian Ivy was Isis. Isis is said to have been the founder of the ceremony and union of marriage. So, Ivy is important in many marriages today as a symbol and vow of fidelity and strong union.

In legend Osiris had an evil brother called Seth, the God of the Desert. Seth, was jealous of his brother ruling the fertile lands of nature, while he had the challenge of the deserts.

He tricked his brother Osiris to get into a large chest which he closed, sealed and threw into the Nile River. This wooden chest floated down the river and out into the Mediterranean Sea, where currents carried it to Byblos.

The jealous brother Seth found the chest at Byblos but the spirit of Osiris had left his body and became a God of the Underworld with a quest of fertilizing infertile land. Seth was angry that his bother's body had not sunk and spirit had escaped so he chopped up his brother's torso and scattered parts over several lands. Isis is said to have searched for every peace of her husband's scattered body and buried each piece where she found it. By doing so she spread the potency of his spirit nature everywhere.

From this story, Ivy has been associated as a plant of life, passion and renewel, which together has linked her with fertility.

I will close this with the Ivy myth that is related to the creation of the Ogham symbols into language.

It is said, Gort the Ivy carries spirit to protect us from weakness, all weakness that is caused by resisting the spirit of love and life when it flows through us.

The spirit of Ivy is said to attune us to meeting, knowing and relating to our spirit guide, no matter how we describe or name it. Through accepting and walking with this guide we grow strong as we no longer judge and no longer resist love and life when it approaches us.

This is essential for the clean start in the new year of light cycle that commences at mid-winter Solstice. It is a myth that suggests why we have Ivy present in our homes from mid-winter Solstice until Epiphany, Ivy's influence is stronger than the presence of its living greenery.

the enchantment of Holly

In Scotland the Gaelic name for holly is chuillin, or cuileann. Variations of this gaelic name appears across the country from Cruach-doire-cuilean on the Isle of Mull, where the local McLean clan chose holly to be their clan badge, to Loch a' Chuillin in Ross-shire in the north, and the town of Cullen in Banffshire, all places that took their names from local holly woods, or woods with plenty of Holly..

A Holly tree, like the hawthorn and rowan, is said to be a place of fairies. Bringing Holly into the home from mid-winter Solstice until Epiphany is said to be a kindly gesture so that fairies could come into our homes and use the holly as shelter against the cold.

Of course, for the last 2000 years or so Holly's purpose of protection became translated as warding off evil spirits before they could enter our homes. This myth hangs with the Holly branches and Holly reefs that are hung outside through Yule and Christmas.

Many Christians developed a tradition of believing that the Holly red berries were the blood of Christ and that is what protects the home through this Yule time. Some have taken this further to say Jesus' Crown Of Thorns was a Holly wreath and the berries represent the blood that this crown caused.

The reverence of Holly has changed through ancient times and in different cultures. Through some ages and within some cultures Holly is the bringer of light and happiness, the lifter of melancholy, the cause of us being jolly when the sun turns after mid-winter Solstice.

Then in other traditions Holly is suppressed by the Oak and driven into being a symbol of cold and darkness and even demonized, especially by the later Christians.

Holly is usually male in tradition and leadership but in some culture traditions, as in parts of Italy and Sweden Holly is not only suppressed but changes gender to female. Where accepted by Christians, the Holly has often become female as servant to the male.

I am fascinated by the Holly myth related to the creation of the Ogham symbols into language.

Tinne the Holly is a symbol, a strange name, and nobody seems to clearly know why Tinne is Holly as it is better known as an old word for a rod of metal, and maybe where the modern word for tin comes from.

The creation of Ogham story tells us that Tinne the Holly lifts us from melancholy, removes darkness from thoughts and shines in light.

Tinne the Holly carries our prayers that return with responded blessings of the love, light and abundance that we deserve.

A country folklore practice is to hang a sprig of holly on the bedpost to bring sweet dreams to the person or people in that bed.

Some of this Ogham creation story may have been born out of Holly's remarkable ability as a lightning conductor. When lightning strikes the earth, the Oak is the most likely tree to be struck by it, and the Holly is the second most likely tree to be hit by the lightning.

This is not surprising considering how close to Oaks that Holly trees can grow. The Holly thorns of the Holly leaves are excellent lightning conductors. No wonder Holly is connected to fire and light.

People plant Holly around their homes to protect their homes from lightning as the Holly will catch the lightning and save the home.

There is so much more I could tell about Holly, but I will continue with the confusing relationships between Holly and Ivy and the Oak.

the Holly, Ivy and Oak

The tradition of Holly has become a confusing one.

Best known tradition and folk tale today seems to be the legend of the battle of the Holly King and the Oak King. This seems to have, somehow, suppressed another story, probably of older more ancient origin, about the challenge and dance of the Holly Boy And Ivy Girl.

The Holly and Oak tradition tells of the Oak King and the Holly King as being male twins.

The wheel of the year is said to turn because the Oak King and Holly King constantly fight for supremacy. This tale seems to have suppressed the tale of the mating dance of the Holly Boy and Ivy Girl which may have much much more ancient origins.

The Holly King, in this myth, rules the waning year from mid-summer to Yule, while in the other myth this is the realm of Ivy Girl.

Opposite the Holly King is The Oak King who rules the waxing year from Yule to mid-summer, while in the other myth this is the realm of the Holly Boy.

The Holly King in one myth represents darkness, cold and decay, yet the role of Ivy Girl in the other myth represents the same as well as representing inner knowledge and wisdom.

The Oak King in this myth represents light, growth and expansion,which is the role of the Holly Boy in the other myth.

At the Solstices when these two Kings battle, Holly wins the Crown at the Summer Solstice, Litha, and Oak wins the Crown at at the Winter Solstice, Yule.

To the early Celts, the Oak trees were considered sacred. As the winter cold and windy weather set in, the Oak trees lost their leaves to reveal better sight of the Holly trees standing out in full beauty, sometimes covered in berries, all of which had been hidden by the leafy Oaks.

Regarding the Oak King and Holly King battle at midwinter, it seemed, at first, that the Holly King had won and the Oak King stood naked in defeat. But, as the sun returned after Yule the Oak King strengthens and gradually re-establishes his supremacy with his new budding blossoming into a new cloak of leaves. By mid-summer the Oak King's cloak pushes the Holly King out of sight again.

The creation of an Oak Wood in nature is fascinating.

First to arrive is the Birch to create the virgin wood, and the Robin's tree is the birch too. Then as the Oak arrives and as it grows and strengthens the Birch trees die and fall, and the Robin becomes the servant of the Oak.

The only other tree that manages to survive in an Oak wood, once the Oak matures and becomes King is the Holly, that grows very close to its roots, hidden for about 6 months of the year, until the Oak leaves fall.

The mystery to me is how the battle of the Oak and Holly, both men, took over from the earlier challenge and dance of the Holly Boy and Ivy Girl who were trying to achieve balance through challenge.

Their dance was balanced by the Mistletoe that only grows on Oak.

My own thoughts are that the Holly and Ivy Myth has been with us since bronze age, and possibly before, when Holly was regarded as an very important tree of protection.

Also similar Holly and Ivy myths have been mysteriously kept and passed on by many tribes of the Americas.

The Bronze Age of Erin tells of tales of the Firbolg and De Dannan and their tribes

possibly coming to Erin from the middle east, but the middle east does not have natural Holly. So, even Holly as the Crown of Thorns of Jesus is a problem in detail.

There is a tale of the Milesians, maybe a Celt race, though anthropoligists are recently doubting this; The Milesians are a race from the Iron Age who overpowered the De Dannan race in Erin and are said to have driven them to the underworld through the Sidhe Hills.

The Milesians are said to have brought the reverence of the Oak with them, and that pushed aside the reverence of Holly by the De Dannan into the Underworld too.

So is the battle of the Oak King and Holly King rooted in the Milesian and De Dannan battle for supremacy of Erin? This was also a time when Patriarchy leadership was starting to take power in all things as well.

and that famous festive song?

The ancient myth of the Holly and Ivy challenge through dance is recognized by most of us through a popular festive carol.

The version known to most of us, performed more frequently with a modern hymn tune rather than the older folk tune, is a conversion of the Holly and Ivy tale that describes the Holly King as being Jesus and it is assumed that Ivy is of the old ways.

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.


:Oh, the rising of the sun and the running of the deer,

The playing of the merry organ, sweet singing in the choir.

The holly bears a blossom as white as lily flower,

And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to be our sweet saviour

chorus: ...

The holly bears a berry as red as any blood,

And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to do poor sinners good.

chorus: ...

The holly bears a prickle as sharp as any thorn,

And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ on Christmas Day in the morn.

chorus: ...

The holly bears a bark as bitter as any gall,

And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ for to redeem us all.

chorus: ... last time

I love the more ancient song that tells the tale of the Holly and Ivy Dance

A passed down version was collected Cecil Sharp, around 1900 from a woman in Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire, England that she called "The Contest of the Ivy and the Holly", and she described this as a song of the ongoing contest between women and men all through nature all year round..

Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is.

Holly stands in the hall, fair to behold:

Ivy stands without the door, she is full sore a cold.

Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be I wis;

Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is.

Holly and his merry men, they dance and they sing,

Ivy and her maidens, they weep and they wring.

Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be I wis;

Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is.

Ivy hath chapped fingers, she caught them from the cold,

So might they all have, aye, that with ivy hold.

Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be I wis;

Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is.

Holly hath berries red as any rose,

The forester, the hunter, keep them from the does.

Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be I wis;

Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is.

Ivy hath berries black as any sloe;

There come the owl and eat him as she go.

Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be I wis;

Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is.

Holly hath birds a fair full flock,

The nightingale, the popinjay, the gentle laverock.

Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be I wis;

Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is.

Good ivy, what birds hast thou?

None but the owlet that cries how, how.

Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be I wis;

In ancient English village and rural life there was a mid-winter Solstice custom of holding singing-contests between men and women, where the men sang carols praising holly for its "masculine" qualities and challenging ivy, the women. These would alternate with women singing songs praising the ivy for its "feminine" qualities and challenging holly, the men.

A coin would be tossed, heads or tales, to decide who sings first.

Within winter retreats I used to host on Iona well over 30 years ago we used to try this out, and the women truly punched out their songs with more gusto than the men !!!

Have we changed since then>

During the late 1800s and early 1900s Cecil Sharp did find he was able to record many more men's songs from this tradition than women's songs. Far too many of the women's songs in this tradition were not passed down and are no longer remembered or in archived writing.

At the end of the battle of the songs, the men and women would conclude with resolve, forgiveness and much more under the mistletoe, often with much more than a hug and a kiss, we are told.

a version of the one everyone seems to know

when Holly and Ivy dance together

'The dance of Holly Boy and Ivy Girl is said to be symbolic of the foundation of the entire earth, and of the entire universe. It is the dance of everything in creation.

All above and around the earth is of Holly Boy, its creation and the spreading of light all around it. Its preservation and spreading of darkness is said to be by the Ivy Girl but Holly Boy could be a force of destruction if Ivy Girl was not a force of protection and conservation.

Notice how during winter colds and flu we experience fever, and that fever becomes chills. We find ourselves being hot and shivering at the same time. That is said to be experiencing the extreme of the Holly and Ivy dance.

Water of Ivy Girl meets the fire of Holly Boy. Holly Boy also creates the air that Ivy Girl helps us to conduct with our senses.The spirit receives its nourishment through the air ruled by Holly Boy while the physical body receives its nourishment through the senses ruled by Ivy Girl.

When Holly Boy is stronger in winter, people can endure winter better. In summer when Ivy Girl is stronger our bodies are covered with perspiration, the water of the spirit of Ivy Girl, that cools us down.

Before Yule, the Ivy Girl freezes the water and protects the womb of the land, but after Yule the Holly Boy starts to return heat and air to warm the land, make the waters flow again and the new seeds appear for the new year of life.

At Yule we celebrate and pray for Holly and Ivy to keep dancing while also being held together in tolerance, union and love by the Mistletoe of the Oak Tree.

what say ye about Holly and Ivy traditions?

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      7 years ago

      Fascinating and informative lens, thanks!


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