The Holly and the Ivy/Sans Day Carol


TWO for the price of one today, as The Holly and the Ivy and the Sans Day Carol have similar themes. Decking homes with evergreens towards the close of the year is a very ancient custom, a remnant of Paganism. The early Christian church banned Pagan rituals but this one was probably too ingrained to be stopped. The church seems to have decided ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’, and references to holly in particular have been commonplace in carols since medieval times.

The first surviving printing of the words of The Holly and the Ivy was a broadside published in Birmingham in 1814. (A broadside was a single sheet of flimsy paper printed on one side, sometimes with songs, sometimes with news, often with woodcut illustrations.) When it appeared in Joshua Sylvester’s 1861 collection A Garland of Christmas Carols, the editor said it originated from ‘an old broadside, printed a century and a half since’, in other words around 1711. He added: ‘The curious similes betwixt the holly and certain events in the life of Christ may yet be occasionally heard in the discourse of aged people. The Holly, from time immemorial, has been looked upon as a favoured evergreen, typical of the mission of Our Saviour.’

In her 2008 book Christmas Angie Mostellar says Christians have identified a wealth of symbolism in the form of holly. The thorns of the leaves recall Jesus’s crown of thorns; the red berries are a reminder of the blood that He shed for salvation; and the shape of the leaves, which resemble flames, can serve to reveal God’s burning love for His people.

The usual melody for the carol was first published in Cecil Sharp’s 1911 collection English Folk-Carols. Sharp states that he heard the tune sung by ‘Mrs Mary Clayton, at Chipping Camden’ (Gloucestershire) and his manuscript transcription is dated January 13, 1909. Mrs Clayton also gave Sharp most of the words.

The carol is often sung in an arrangement by Sir Henry Walford Davies (1869 – 1941). He served with the RAF in the First World War and in 1918 he was appointed director of music of the RAF with the rank of major. He established the RAF School of Music and two RAF bands, and composed the Royal Air Force March Past to which a slow ‘trio’ section was added by his successor, Major George Dyson. Walford Davies’s Solemn Melody, composed in 1908, is one of the permanent selection of national airs and mourning music performed on Remembrance Sunday at the Cenotaph.

Here the Walford Davies arrangement of The Holly and the Ivy is sung by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge at their 2008 Carols from King’s.

(My ramblings around YouTube also turned up this little delight: a trailer for the 1952 British film The Holly and the Ivy. Can this really have been made during my lifetime?)

The Sans Day Carol or St Day Carol is one of many Cornish carols written in the 19th century. The authorship of both words and melody is unknown. This carol and its melody were first transcribed from the singing of Thomas Beard in the former mining village of St Day near Redruth. This village is believed to be named after a Breton saint venerated in Cornwall, St Dei. The village was also known as Sans Day and St They. It was published in The Cornish Song Book of 1929 with this note by editor Ralph Dunstan: ‘Sung to Mr W D Watson by Thomas Beard (aged 50-60) and communicated by Rev G H Doble, MA.’

Here is it performed by a Cornish ensemble, the Holman Climax Male Voice Choir based in Camborne.  The last verse is sung in Cornish.

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