Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Holly and the Ivy: Medieval Allegory and the Natural World

The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown,
Of all trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown.

I've been leading the choir this year at King's Academy, the junior and senior high where I taught for five years before "retiring". It was a rather unexpected job offer--the teacher they had hired was involved in a very serious car accident right after school started in September. Since I already know the ropes, I offered to fill in for the position if I could find babysitting, and once the babysitting presented itself (thanks, mom!), I have been able to go in twice a week to rehearse the students for their Christmas program.

The headmistress had already picked out the theme for this year's Christmas concert. She wanted an Old English setting, with wassail and Yule logs and boar's heads with all the trimmings. It's been fun to run through the old carols--"Good King Wenceslas", "I Saw Three Ships", "Masters in This Hall," and others.

One of the songs we practiced this morning was "The Holly and the Ivy". If you Wikipedia this song, you'll read all about how the lyrics contain a blend of pagan and Christian elements. Maybe they do--or maybe it's the same thing that secularists try to say about all Christian holidays. What struck me today was how beautifully the song combines a study of the natural world with theology and poetry.

The holly bears a blossom,
As white as lily flow'r,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ,
To be our dear Saviour

In each of the verses, we see a characteristic of the holly plant, the observations of a budding botanist. And this then is juxtaposed with two lines about Mary giving birth to Jesus. You can't help but compare the two things.

The holly bears a berry,
As red as any blood,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ,
To do poor sinners good

There's an edge and a sharpness that often gets missed in nativity story retellings but shows up quite poignantly in this song. Why did Mary bear Jesus? To do poor sinners good with his blood--which happens to be as red as holly berries.

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

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

The sweet Christmas Day story has a sharpness and a bitterness to it since it is the precursor to the cross. But with all the sharpness and the bitterness, it is still sweet, since it marks the day Christ came "for to redeem us all".

In a recent post on the English Historical Fiction Authors blog, I talked about the allegories in medieval bestiaries and how the medievals believed that animals had a wonderful capacity to reveal truths about this world and the world beyond it. This song is another example of the same thing--how the medievals looked at the natural world and saw it in relation to the creator. They looked at white blossoms, red berries, prickly leaves, and sour bark and saw a Christmas story waiting to be told.

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