Advent Calendar Day 14 – The Holly and the Ivy (Mediaeval Baebes)

I’m not sure this next one is strictly an Advent carol (I’ve been saying that a lot, I know); it usually gets sung as a Christmas carol, though it shares the advent tendency to focus on aspects of theology or Christ’s life other than his birth.

I first heard this carol when I was six years old and living in York. It brings back to me my first experience of conkers, that gorgeous walk home from school through late-autumn woods (that smell and look completely different to the Australian kind), complete with red squirrels and actual robin red-breasts (just as exotic to me as koalas are to our overseas visitors), and then across the stepping stones of the lake at York University. It reminds me of the fascination of cobbled streets and Roman walls and going to bookshops up long flights of stairs in The Shambles when it was already dark outside. It reminds me of ice on car windows, of colouring in stained-glass snowflakes (which was as close as I got to real snow that year), of eating blackberry jam and collecting gollywog stickers while watching Jackanory, and of being Clara in the school production of the Nutcracker – because, as the school closest to the University, lots of academics and graduate students from overseas sent their children there, so the teacher thought it would be a good way to showcase national dances and costumes. (Presumably, Australia was not cultured enough to have a costume or a dance, and that’s why I got Clara. Or perhaps it was evident even at that stage of my development that my talents lay in memorising lines, not in dancing.)

And it reminds me, of course, of holly, which is so beautiful and shiny and green – and such a good green! – with those wonderful rich red berries that seem so much brighter in the grey of a Yorkshire winter than they ever could in the gold and blue of an Australian summer (it’s true that we have redcurrants, which are almost Christmas decorations in their own right, but we don’t have the darkness for them to shine in). Also, it’s prickly, which was generally the part I encountered. But that didn’t prevent me from adoring the colour and the name of it – holly is such a lovely, sparkly green word that sounds just like what it is. At least to me.

I love this carol, too, because of all the colours in it – the red of the berries, the white of the blossoms. The green isn’t mentioned, but it’s implied, at least to me. I didn’t even notice all the religious content until years later. And the melody is beautiful, and the version we do in choir has these perfect harmonies in the verses that make me happy.

Mostly, though, I love this carol because it reminds me of York.

This is another Mediaeval Baebes recording. Why should King’s College Choir get everything their way? I don’t trust them not to sing it as though it was rocket-fuelled…

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