Pope Paul VI to the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Michael Ramsey

"(B)y entering into our house, you are entering your own house, we are happy to open our door and heart to you." - Pope Paul VI to Dr Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Holly And The Ivy

Filipinos put the holly and ivy as Christmas decorations in their houses and workplaces. Of course they use the plastic ones since aside from a small Chinese species of holly, neither English holly and ivy can grow in their tropical isles. Nonetheless the holly and ivy have become part of the Filipino Christmas.

But the carol the Holly and the Ivy is not as known as the other English carols like Wade's "O Come all ye Faithful" which is sung at Christmas Eve Mass.

The Holly and the Ivy like any of the medieval English carols has a reference to the Passion. It was Cecil Sharp who put the words into music after hearing a rural Englishwoman sing the carol. The carol probably dates back to the Medieval mystery plays that were standard entertainment fare in Chaucer's England and up to the reign of the Tudors. The holly has always been sacred to the British pre-Christian religion. When England was evangelized, the holly took another meaning, and that is with reference to the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. The song mentions the blood red berry and prickle of the holly, which points to the blood shed by Christ on the cross and the lance that pierced his side.

The Ivy on the other hand is a reference to the Holy Virgin and her love for her babe. The juxtaposition of the holly's blood red berry and the prickle to the Virgin and Child makes the carol's message like the message of the Eastern Christian icons of the Virgin Mary. To Filipinos the most popular of which is the Icon of the Mother of Perpetual Help. In this icon we see the instruments of Christ's Passion and the babe in his mother's arms.

Before the Reformation, English churches (still in communion with Rome) were decked with the holly and the ivy, since the plants represented to the English people the clear message of salvation. But the Reformation put an end to the mystery plays as they were considered "superstitious" and the message of the holly and ivy was largely lost even if the now Anglican churches were still decked with these decorations. But the carol survived in Gloucestershire until in the 19th century under the influence of the Oxford Movement, the carol was popularized and its message was recovered. In fact even the hugely popular "Adeste Fideles"  and "What Child is This?" (both 19th Century creations) were influenced by the need to recover the sacramental in Anglicanism. These two carols for most Filipinos sound medieval but really are not!

The carols of medieval England which Filipinos sing at Christmastide represent the voices of Catholic England and thus bring the Catholic message of salvation back to us. And one of the carols, the haunting Coventry Carol proves that Catholic England was very pro-life. And this I shall blog about after Christmas.

The "Holly and the Ivy" in the video clip is performed by the Westminster Cathedral Choir.

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