Happy Holly (And Ivy)-Day Holidays

One year long ago, my dear sister in law gave me a little book, signed by the author, Adelma Grenier Simmons (1903-1997). It was titled A Merry Christmas Herbal (1968) and was full of lore, garden and craft ideas and recipes using herbs. She owned and operated Caprilands Herb Farm in Coventry, Connecticut for over 55 years and was considered to be the First Lady Of Herbs. This book is a treasure beyond measure, as is the one who gifted it. The knowledge contained within the now yellowing pages opened a door for me to Herb Gardening, I am still learning more about these wonderful plants.

Among the chapters was information about the history of the use of holly, Ilex ssp. through the ages. It was fascinating to learn how the many plants were used at Caprilands for Christmas. Here is a tidbit of what Ms. Simmons wrote about holly:

.. Considered anathema to witches, holly was hung over doorways, in windows, and next to the chimney, lest a witch enter through these openings. The Druids, who venerated the sun, held holly sacred since the sun never deserted its evergreen leaves.

According to Pliny the Elder, it was a plant of many virtues–growing near a house, it afforded protection from lightning and witchcraft; it repelled poison. The flowers caused water to freeze, the wood thrown at an animal compelled it to lie down beside the stick. Whoever first brought holly into the house, husband or wife, ruled for the year.

At first considered a Pagan plant inappropriate to Christian homes and churches, holly was later thought to have sprung up under the footsteps of Christ. Its thorny leaves and red berries represented his sufferings. Supposedly the crown-of-thorns was made from holly, and the white berries turned red with Christ’s blood.

About ivy she wrote:

Ivy has been associated with wine for centuries. It crowned the brow of Bacchus, the young Greek god of wine–and all his lively followers–for ivy was thought to prevent intoxication. In Elizabethan times, ivy above tavern entrances indicated that superior drink was served. …As late as the nineteenth century, a Dr. Fernie wrote, “a Decoction of the leaves and berries will mitigate a servere headache, such as that which follows hard drinking over night.” So with a wreath of ivy encircling our punch bowl, we continue an ancient tradition, with a slightly different means of giving ivy for Christmas.

Inspired by these passages and looking outside at the various hollies growing here, we grabbed the felcos, after spotting them lying on the ground behind the knot garden. How that happened is a mystery. Anyway, evergreens, berried branches and long pieces of variegated ivy were snipped and spread on the knot garden bench to be assembled into outdoor decorations, including the wreath hanging on the shed window featured at the beginning of this post.

“The Holly And The Ivy” by Cecil Sharp*

The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown,
Of all trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown:
O, 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 flow’r,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ,
To be our dear Saviour: Refrain
The holly bears a berry,
As red as any blood,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ,
To do poor sinners good: Refrain

The holly bears a prickle,
As sharp as any thorn,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ,
On Christmas Day in the morn: Refrain

The holly bears a bark,
As bitter as the gall,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ,
For to redeem us all: Refrain

The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown,
Of all trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown: Refrain
The Holly and the Ivy!

*The version of “The Holly and the Ivy” that we are familiar with today was first published by Cecil Sharp. The song is thought to have Pagan origins and could therefore date back over 1000 years. It is most unusual for a carol like this to have survived over the years, especially during the stern protestant period of the 17th century. These plants have always been taken indoors during the winter with the hope being that the occupants would survive the difficult conditions, just like the hardy holly and ivy. The colors of green and red are traditionally associated with Christmas. The true author and composer of “The Holly and the Ivy” are unknown.

And so we at the Fairegarden want to wish to all of you a very happy Holly and Ivy Day to help celebrate both the Winter Solstice and Christmas!


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17 Responses to Happy Holly (And Ivy)-Day Holidays

  1. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    A most interesting post Frances. The wreath you made is beautiful. It makes me want to get out and do some picking and arranging. Happy holly and ivy to you too.

    Thanks Lisa. I like learning about how traditions we still recognize today came to be. The red and green of the holly, shining so brightly in the garden right now, is perfect to bring cheer on this longest night. Now the daylight will start to increase, it’s about time! HA

  2. Gail says:

    Frances, Your wreath is beautiful and the variegated ivy makes it extra special. The information on hollies and ivies is quite interesting. Happiest of Ivy and Holly Days to you. xoxogail PS It’s a mystery how our clippers end up on the garden floor.

    Thanks Gail. The ivy is very pretty and only slightly out of control, not as bad as the solid green but I have to watch it. It was a shock to see that the pretty patch of red on the ground was not holly berries but the felcos! HA

  3. Carol says:

    Good info. I have a little book that is all about Christmas plants and the origins. I love to pull it out and read it this time of year. Hmmm… I need to plant some holly somewhere.

    Thanks Carol. You do need holly with nice red berries, the birds adore those berries and the branches look pretty in holiday displays. They do keep better out of doors, or a couple of days inside. Warning, the berries will stain carpeting.

  4. Laurrie says:

    Caprilands was a joy to visit when she was still alive, but it fell into decline after her death. They tried to keep it going, but on my last visit there many years ago it was clear the maintenance of the gardens was a problem, and now Caprilands is closed. It was a treasure in its day.

    You’ve done a great profile of holly. Such an iconic plant for the holidays, and a solid performer in the garden at any time.

    How wonderful that you got to see Caprilands at its prime, Laurrie. I am envious. That’s the thing about gardens, they are constantly changing, and not always for the better. Nature will gobble them back up in short order without the loving touch of the gardener. Thank goodness there are books to help us remember what once was. Holly is a fabulous plant, a non-conifer evergreen with brilliant wildlife potential. Many are natives, as well. We love them all.

  5. Your wreath is beautiful and the information about the holly and ivy very interesting. There’s been much discussion about planting some holly in my Zone 6 garden. There’s a new fence along the back border that needs softening and the holly might just do the trick. Thanks for the ideas.

    Thanks Heather. To quickly hide a fence, the dwarf Burfordii is a good choice, self pollinating so needs no male. A good native that can be pruned to a hedge is the Foster holly. I have both and love them.

  6. Rose says:

    A very interesting post, Frances. I always enjoy learning the origins of some of our traditions: holly adds such a festive touch to decorations, even though I’ve never worried about witches entering my door:) Your wreath is lovely. Wishing you and your family a very Merry Christmas!

    Thanks Rose. I like knowing the uses and lore of all plants, but especially the ones used at Christmas. This book remains one of my favorites. May you and your family have a wonderful Christmas!

  7. wellywoman says:

    Love the wreath. I posted some unusual folklore about holly and ivy. I do love finding out about how plants meant so much to our ancestors. Have a lovely Christmas

    Thanks Wellywoman. I will dash over and check out your post when time allows. I like knowing the lore and traditions from long ago, too. Best wishes for a merry Christmas to you.

  8. My Kids Mom says:

    Whenever I hear “The Holly and the Ivy” I think of yardwork. We have too much of both those invasive plants!

    And if you can find my good clippers I’ll be eternally grateful. They’re in the yard somewhere but I haven’t seen them for a month.

    Hi Jill, you are funny! That is not like me at all, usually, HA, to leave tools out in the yard. I don’t even remember being in that location. Can I blame the garden fairies?

  9. Vicki says:

    Happy Solstice and Merry Christmas to you and your family, Frances. I have been following your blog for a little over 2 months now and always smile when I see the new post in my mail – I save it for last to savor the beautiful pictures and thoughtful words – sort of like dessert. The Holly and the Ivy tune is one of my favorites learned in a rural elementary school with an enthusiastic piano playing teacher. Must be a nod to my ancester’s Driud roots. Your garden is beautiful, Thank you for sharing.

    Thanks Vicki, and the same good wishes back to you and yours. What a sweet thing to say, I do appreciate your readership! Druid roots, I like the thought of that, too. Being gardeners, songs about plants do strike a chord.

  10. What a gorgeous wreath! The variegated ivy makes a great twist on the basic theme. That is my favorite version of the carol.

    Thanks MMD. I do love that ivy, it enlivens a blah winter landscape considerably along with spicing up a wreath or holiday decor. It goes well with red berries, too. I didn’t realize there were so many versions of this carol until doing the research for this post. Blogging does educate us!

  11. Oh wow what an amazing book!! I love to use natural materials for decorations and yours are just beautiful!

    Thanks, Alicia. That book has given me many, many ideas over the years. Using materials from the garden has always been a priority for me, since I am a tightwad anyway. HA

  12. ricki says:

    Happy Holidays to you, Frances…and thank you for brightening so many of our days in the year nearly past.

    Happy Holidays to you, Ricki, and thank you for those sweet words. It means a lot to me.

  13. Linda says:

    I’m thanking you for adding the beautiful images and all this history, connected to these great plants………I tried to post a sketch that I did, of a woman, with the ivy crown, with lit candles, all around her head (amongst the ivy), but never made it my Christmas card, because I felt that “something was missing”. It’s the ivy! And it will be next year’s Christmas card! Come hell or high water, I will figure out, how to post the before and after pictures! Thank you, too, for creating a beautiful space and sharing History, Art and Inspiration. Happy Holidays, Frances, and a ROCKIN’ 2012!!!!! Woot! ❤ Linda

    Thanks Linda, your sketch sounds amazing of the St. Lucia tradition. I have never seen that done in real life, but have a friend in Sweden whose daughter wears the crown on the special day and she has posted photos of her, quite beautiful. You can do it, and please come tell me when you post that before and after. 2012 holds great promise, Happy Holidays to you!

  14. Lola says:

    A most interesting post Dear Frances. One of which I’ve never heard. I should like to read that book.
    I do wish for you & yours a very Merry Christmas & a Happy, Healthy & Prosperous New Year.

    Thanks Lola. This is one of my favorite carols, always liking the ones with garden themes. Learning about herbs is very satisfying, from this book or others like it. May you have a wonderful Christmas!

  15. Very Interesting indeed! Beautiful wreath and images Frances. Wishing you a very Merry Christmas and all best for the New Year!

    Thanks Carol. May you and yours have a wonderful Christmas holiday!

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