The Pagan Origins of a Christian Carol

"It is most unusual for a carol like 'The Holly and the Ivy' to have survived over the years"

Behind every great man, it is said, is a great woman. Equally, it seems that behind every Christian tradition and holiday is a legacy of pagan belief and worship. How, though did this carol, known and beloved by so many, survive several hundred years, especially in the light of some of the religious purges in Northern and Central Europe? This classic folk song, sung over many hundred Christmasses, is a wonderful example of how a "heathen" concept has been not only accepted but absorbed into the corpus of Christian philosophy and tradition.

The song itself was collected in 1861 by one Joshua Sylvester (though some say it was Cecil Sharp), who took it from a broadsheet circulating in Oxfordshire. There are, of course many versions of the song, most of which are sung to a tune familiar to almost all (English and English-speaking) people, whether Christian or not. The origin of the song as we know it may date back to late 17th-century France, although the roots obviously go back much, much further than that. The tune is traditional, and a midi file of it may be found at

All Roads Lead To Rome

...and further, in this case. Both the holly tree and the ivy plant have been revered for many years, for similar reasons. Holly has long been associated with immortality, being an evergreen plant, which produces the most beautiful berries in the heart of the northern winter months. (Most of the greenery connected with Christmas is evergreen, like the Christmas tree itself.)

Traditions of Holly

The holly bears a berry, As red as any blood

But in the case of holly, there is much more than just a symbol of life and rebirth - it was said to give protection from evil spirits, witches, even poison and lightning (some churches in Central Europe still keep sprigs of holly inside the church doors for protection against one or more of these).

The Romans associated holly with the god Saturn (who they say created it), and they used it in great abundance during the revelries of the Saturnalia, hanging holly wreaths in their homes and streets. Early Christians in the Roman Empire certainly "decked the halls with boughs of holly" to blend in with the pagan populace during the celebrations, and possibly to avoid persecution (some say that this was the start of the apostasy from pure Christianity). Gradually, the Empire embraced a fusion of Christian and pagan beliefs and traditions, one of which surfaces every year in this reflection of Saturnalia, Christmas. And of course, the holly came along too.

Christians certainly had great imaginations, and they quickly tied this pagan symbol onto their traditions. The holly tree, it was said, was the tree used to make the instrument of Christ's execution (although this was also said of the hawthorn), and the berries (originally white) became infused with Jesus' blood and remain red to this day. Other traditions have it that holly was used to make the crown of thorns (again, other plants share this dubious privilege).

Other traditions have continued until quite recently - in some parts of Ireland, for example, the holly brought into the house at Christmas was kept and burned in the fire used to make Shrove Tuesday pancakes. Holly was also associated with peace, and in Medieval times, arguments were settled under a holly tree to ensure that agreements would be quickly made and blessed with longevity.

Traditions of Ivy

Ivy also has a long pagan history. The Romans associated it with the god Bacchus and made wreaths with it for protection - in fact in many parts of Europe it was revered both before and after Roman times for this, it being said that ivy growing up a wall would protect both the house and the householder against harm.

Like holly, it was also associated with life, longevity and rebirth, but was considered to be more delicate and weaker, needing other, stronger structures to provide it with support. For this reason, it has attracted to itself the belief that it has a more feminine quality than holly, which being stronger, is masculine in nature.

The Holly bears the Crown

At the time the song was written, this differentiation between the male and female natures may have been uppermost in the minds of both the writers and the singers of the song. Society in medieval Europe saw the man at the head, with the woman needing support, but providing needed protection for the (occasionally vulnerable) male.

Of course, much of this is speculation, but many scholars do believe that the song somehow represents the battle of the sexes, and yet celebrates the joy and wonder of both working together, being fertile and productive, each showing different aspects of support and need.

The song further celebrates the end of darkness at the winter solstice - "...the rising of the sun...", and is possibly the best example of the crossover between Pagan and Christian religions and philosophies. Whatever your beliefs, enjoy this celebration of the lengthening of the days and the promise of new growth in the year ahead.

The song is still sung in celebration of Christmas, yet celebrates traditions much older, hence for me it summarises the true Christmas - a blend of old and newer religious tradition. Others agree, in fact the carol was selected by musical historian William Studwell as one Carol of the Year 2002, with the French Patapan.

Written for The Ninjagirls Christmas Special

Encyclopædia Britannica
Memory, any number of books and Googled websites