Music and the Spoken Word: ‘The holly and the ivy’

Editor’s note: “The Spoken Word” is shared by Lloyd Newell each Sunday during the weekly Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square broadcast. This will be given Dec. 1, 2019.

People watch for the first signs of Christmas with great anticipation. Favorite holiday carols fill the air. Colorful, glistening lights illuminate the night sky. And wreaths of holly and ivy appear on doors and storefronts. To many people, traditional symbols like these signal the advent of the Christmas season. But how did these traditions begin? 

For example, why have holly and ivy become symbols of Christmas? The answer takes us back to the earliest days of Christianity, when wreaths of holly — with their sharp leaves and red berries — brought to mind the crown of thorns worn by Jesus Christ and the drops of blood He shed. The tradition of making and giving decorative wreaths dates to the Roman Empire and may have entered Christianity through St. Augustine, who was Roman by birth and was highly successful at spreading “good tidings of great joy” (see Luke 2:10). Over time, it was believed that a holly wreath on the door would keep one’s home safe from evil — and from tax collectors (see Ronald M. Clancy, “Best-Loved Christmas Carols: The Stories behind Twenty-Five Yuletide Favorites” by Ronald M. Clancy, published in 2006, page 61–62). 

Holly and ivy commonly appear together as mainstays of Christmas decor. Some say the holly represents the Christ child and the ivy represents His mother, Mary. Others find symbolic meaning in the fact that these plants do not die in winter. In the evergreen leaves of the holly and the ivy, they are reminded of the promise of everlasting life embodied in a newborn babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. No wonder our hearts still thrill with excitement as we see these symbols of Christmas!

The symbolism of the holly and the ivy has been preserved by an English folk song, written about 300 years ago (see “Best-Loved Christmas Carols”). Traditions may come and go, but for all, the holly and the ivy signal that Christmas is coming, and with it, goodwill and enduring hope. 

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.

Tuning in …

The “Music and the Spoken Word” broadcast is available on KSL-TV, KSL Radio 1160AM/102.7FM, ksl.com, BYU-TV, BYU Radio, Dish and DirectTV, SiriusXM Radio (Ch. 143), the tabernaclechoir.orgyoutube.com/TheTabernacleChoiratTempleSquare and Amazon Alexa (must enable skill). The program is aired live on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. on many of these outlets. Look up broadcast information by state and city at musicandthespokenword.org/schedules