Advent Devotional Dec 14: The Holly and The Ivy

The Holly and the Ivy

 

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

O the rising of the sun

And the running of the deer

The playing of the merry organ

Sweet singing of the choir

 

The holly bears a blossom

As white as lily flower

And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ

To be our sweet Saviour

O the rising of the sun

And the running of the deer

The playing of the merry organ

Sweet singing of the choir

 

The holly bears a berry

As red as any blood

And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ

To do poor sinners good

O the rising of the sun

And the running of the deer

The playing of the merry organ

Sweet singing of the choir

 

The holly bears a prickle

As sharp as any thorn;

And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ

On Christmas Day in the morn.

O the rising of the sun

And the running of the deer

The playing of the merry organ

Sweet singing of the choir

 

The holly bears a bark

As bitter as any gall;

And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ

For to redeem us all.

O the rising of the sun

And the running of the deer

The playing of the merry organ

Sweet singing of the choir

 

The holly and the ivy

Now both are full well grown,

Of all the 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 of the choir

 

This song gives another opening to a side conversation I find important on Christmas myths and traditions.  I say that because it’s commonly believed to have pagan roots and may be over a thousand years old.  Does that make it a bad song?  By no means.  It is an interesting conversation in a day when we talk about a War on Christmas and the horrors of allowing society and culture around us to alter our own worship, words, and traditions.  Because that has always been true. 

 Most of what we think of as Christmas comes more from pagan tradition and practice co-opted by Christianity as it moved into those new regions.  Does pagan mean bad?  Not to me.  What is bad is to think that somehow the traditions we inherited are pure and unformed by the world around us, and that only today is that a true… or that suddenly it’s a problem.

 Christianity as it spread around the world grabbed a hold of traditions and practices native to its new missionary regions and injected Christianity into them.  Much like the Apostle Paul who, in Athens, finds them worshipping idols and preaches to them that the “unknown god” they worship is really the God he is preaching (Acts 17).  He takes their practices and injects Christianity into them.  He is hardly the first, our scriptural creation stories are full of Babylonian and Ancient Near-eastern mythology.   The language of Jesus used in the Bible is pulled directly from language used by Rome (and they used it first) to talk of Caesar.  Even the word church (ecclesia) is a re-defining of a term used for Roman community. 

 We take from the world around us and find new meaning, and inject new meaning, into those common practices.  The same occurred with our understanding and traditions of Christmas (which is why Puritans actually outlawed Christmas because they really did want to war on Christmas by way of returning it to what they saw as its true religious meaning).  So there is no new war on Christmas.  And whether the traditions we have come from some “pure” theological/religious place (if such place exists) or not – their goodness lies not in their human origin, but in so far as they put us in touch with the realities of hope, peace, joy, and love.  If the practices aid our preparations and gives hope to longing for God’s presence, then they are sacred, good, and true regardless of where we got the practices.  If the practice does not (for you) then don’t do it, but do remember that it may do that for someone else so don’t practice it yourself and don’t forbid it or slander it for others.

 Now all of this is really an aside to this song.  I know that – but the song invited my journey down the rabbit trail and I do so love rabbit trails.  Plus I kinda think keeping good perspective on our traditions is important.  So back to the song for the song’s sake, why does this song survive?  Why did it become incorporated into the Christmas practice?  The Holly and the Ivy have been lifted up for their hardiness through the harsh northern winters.  In more mild climates winter simply means cooler days and slightly cold nights with less daylight hours.  In the northern climates winter is deadly… deadly cold but also deadly emotionally.  How do our spirits survive the loss of light and warmth?  Our bodies actually need to absorb light.  So the question of winter is, will we survive this?  The Holly in particular is at its best in winter when its red berries provide a pop of color in contrast the white and grey of snow and clouds.  The Holly is a symbol of, “a light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it.” (John 1)

And so in the midst of a type of dark night of the soul we see the Holly and we think of the hope born in the Christ child.  We are reminded that we will run and play again, and the sun will rise. 

 “And this shall be a sign unto you, you will find the child wrapped in bands of cloth, lying in a manger” (Luke 2)  We seek signs, we find reminders, we hold them close as means of grace and hope.  Again this is sacrament – to find in the ordinary (the pagan even) something that has been turned to a sign and seal of God with us.  So the Holly is not simply holly… it is the bread broken which reminds us of Christ, which gives us hope, which assures us that the sun will rise again and the darkness cannot overcome us.

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About Andrew Kukla

I am the proud father of four wonderful children, loving husband to Caroline, brother to three mostly wonderful sisters, and son of two parents that gifted me with a foundation of love and freedom. I also am a Presbyterian pastor and former philosophy major with a love of too many words (written with many grammatical errors and parenthetic thoughts), Soren Kierkegaard, and reflections on living a life of discipleship that is open to all the challenges, ups and downs, brokenness and grace, of a chaotic and wonderful life founded upon the love of God for all of creation.

Posted on December 14, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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