It seems it is once again time to shift into festive mode – actually, waiting until Advent to do so appears to be a bit slow when I think of the music and decorations that have, in most commercial settings, already plagued us for weeks.  I do love the Christmas season, but I don’t love the excess or the elongation of its celebration for purposes of consumption.  It is a strange time. It can be magical and warm and all things good. It can be crass and greedy and filled with loneliness.

As I thought about which carols I wanted to explore during this season, I referred to the ideals we usually reflect upon during advent.  Hope, Peace, Joy and Love.  It is fitting that we start with Hope.  This old English carol came to mind.  These words are clearly about the anticipation of who Christ will be – a Saviour, wearing a crown of thorns, sacrificing all for sinners’ benefit.  Everything Christians generally celebrate during advent; the hope found in the impending birth.

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.

The holly bears a blossom,
white as the lily flower,
and Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ,
to be our sweet Saviour.

The holly bears a berry,
as red as any blood,
and Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
to do poor sinners good.

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 any gall,
and Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
for to redeem us all.

But there is other wisdom to be found in these words.   This carol, in this form, is likely from the early 1800s, although there is some claim of its words having been around in 1710.  What is interesting is the symbolism of its language. This goes back to a much earlier time – probably before Christianity was widely practiced in England.  A time when a deep connection to nature was prevalent. Both the Pagans and the Romans used evergreens to decorate in their winter celebrations (Winter Solstice or Yule and Saturnalia).  The reason was simple – to remember that when everything else lies dormant, the green of spring and all its resulting sustenance will return.  What a powerful example of celebrating renewal to come; of celebrating hope!

I also read an explanation of the way holly and ivy can grow intertwined in the forest – sometimes the holly prevails, sometimes the ivy.  But they survive together.  Different, competing, growing.  And, ultimately, exuding a beauty that we can experience and consider as we make our way through the darkness of winter.  It struck me that we are like the holly and the ivy.  In our differences, we can be both competitive and intertwined.  We can be prominent or subdued.  But let us try to be alive and thriving as we cover this world with our hopeful beauty. Filling spaces that are dreary with life that is evergreen, reminders of the hope to be found in the Spring.

The rising of the sun
and the running of the deer,
the playing of the merry organ,
sweet singing in the choir.