Oh 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.
Runs part of an old Christmas carol. But firstly Christmas was celebrated long before it bore the name Christ-mas and secondly the references in this Christmas song are so obviously pagan no-one can suppose they are truly celebrating the birth of Jesus. Or at least not that alone.
Oh the rising of the Sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing in the choir.
While we may ignore the innuendo of ‘the playing of the merry organ’ we must ask – what is the running of the deer all about?
It would be easy to say it was hunting season, but there would be little need to chase deer when many stock animals were slaughtered to reduce the need for winter fodder. Nevertheless it does seem to be a winter sport with the killing of the boar in the boar’s head carol, another song of dubious Christian association. Both of these songs have a medieval feeling to me. I don’t know if that is the case. But it is to the Holly and the Ivy that I want to turn our attention.
The Druids collected mistletoe from oak trees with a golden sickle. This was held to be sacred to their rites. Gold the metal of the Sun. It is the royal metal above all others. It doesn’t rust. Perhaps this is why it was chosen for wedding rings, to indicate a love that would never tarnish or grow old. Mistletoe is useful in treating some forms of cancer and as an aid to astral projection and the dream state. But as they say on the best programmes. ‘Don’t try this at home’.
We find the initiatic system replicated through many traditions, particularly of the West, of three levels. Whether this is in the form of Apprentice, Journeyman and Master from the guilds and Freemasons, the three grades of Gnostic initiate, the Person, Soul and Divine Self of the Orphics or again here, among the Druids. For them the Holly bears the crown. This is the highest and most noble of the crowns, the words suggest.
Let us consider the Holly tree. It has a grey bark, leaves which end in thorns, red berries clustered in a spiral about a single stem.
The application of this to the trials and suffering of Jesus are obvious. Yet suffering was not new. Simply that the new religion sought to take advantage of an old understanding to gain favour with the people. The berry, we are told in the song, is red as any blood.
Indicating that the first level of initiation is overcoming injury at a personal level. This crown is of the body. But what of the grey bark and the spiral stem. The grey bark is, like Gandalf the grey, a sign of anonymity. There is something vague and undefined here. The berries on a single stem indicate the fellowship of the brothers of that order. Or indeed the sisters.
When we turn our attention to the ivy we find it has a five pointed leaf.
Its berries are blue and all clustered on a single stipe or stem. Unlike the Holly berries these come from a single point, not spread along the twig. Together they form a dome, like the heavens and their colour blue indicates both the Virgin Mary and the heavens, but also the mental realm. this shows the One Mind shared among the fellowship.
It is the equivalent of the crown of laurel that the poets wear. The crown of mental achievement, which means conquering the runaway tendency of the mind to bigotry.
The third crown is the crown of Mistletoe. The berries are two fold and found between a bifurcation in the twig.
Everything about mistletoe speaks of duality. It is not of the earth but sown by songbirds as they leave it on branches in some high tree. It is not on oak alone but also found on Ash and apple. It was said to be sky-born. This is the crown of spirit when the sense of separation present in both body and mind dissolves into the Great Universal fluid Oneness. There is no strength to the berry. If you squeeze it it goes flat and squelchy It dissolves into nothing.
But before we leave the song and become smug in our knowledge, let’s look again at the words ‘the holly bears the crown’. No hyphens or commas delineate the text. This is a song to be sung and heard. We can divide the words to give us ‘the Holly’ – synonym for Holy – ‘Bear’s the Crown’. The meaning becomes that it is the Bear is the Crown of Creation, not some broken figure on a cross, an image incidentally introduced in the 13th century or so. Before that it was the Lord exultant which was the inspiring image. So it is the symbol of the Bear as the risen Christ we must understand here. The Bear that is Arth-Vawr in Welsh – Arthur, King of the Britons and the Great Bear.
It is not for nothing that children are called ‘barns’ and ‘bairns’ and Scandinavians still call their children Bjorn. In the temple of Artemis in ancient Greece and Turkey the girls of 7 and 8 were called Arktoi – little bears.