“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 rising of the sun
And the running of the deer,
The playing of the merry organ, Sweet singing in the choir.
The holly bears a berry,
As red as any blood,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ For to do us sinners good...
The holly bears a prickle,
As sharp as any thorn...”
—Traditional British Carol, 19th Century
“Then the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole company of soldiers around him...and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head...then they led him away to crucify him.” (Matthew 27; adapted from verses 27-31)
It seems strange to begin a the season of Advent with a passage at the end of the Gospel of Matthew, dealing with Jesus’ crucifixion, but this harkens back to at least the 4th Century. In Europe, where this carol originates, the holly played an important symbolic and practical purpose even before Christianity—in the dead of winter, the evergreen reminded people of the good times to come—spring—and its colorful berries hold through the winter, showing vitality. As pagans became Christians, they took meaningful symbols like the holly and saw them through the lens of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The holly’s berries came to remind them of the blood shed by Jesus, to save them from the “winter of sin” and get them through to the “spring of resurrection.” The holly’s pointy leaves lent its name, “Christ’s Thorn,” referring to the crown of thorns placed on Jesus. Early Christians viewed Christmas through the lens of the cross, the mystery of Emmanuel—God with us—born at Christmas, born to die, so that sinners might live, redeemed as the saints of God. At Christmas, we see the gentle child, who is also prophet, priest and king. And the world would never be the same. This carol connects this story in a sweet manner, rich with deep and ancient meaning—the mystery of a God made flesh.
Prayer: God of holly, ivy and the whole world, this Christmas, help me to welcome the Christ Child into my heart, that I may reflect in wonder on the mystery of Christmas, and the joy of my salvation and hope for new life, through Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection. In Christ’s name I pray, Amen.
—Rev Edwin Estevez