Yuletide: the tale of the Holly and the Ivy

Yuletide is the twelve festive days celebrated from the Winter Solstice that were used by our ancestors to align the solar calendar with the lunar. The Solstice was seen as the still point of the wheel of the year, the pivot on which the agricultural year turned, the time when the sun appears to start heading northwards in the sky just as it has reached its furthest point south. These twelve adjustment days were therefore taken at this special time and were used as an opportunity to relax and make merry, to walk in the fields and the forests, commune with the ancestors, to rewild.

The image of streams of cavorting revellers was probably the origin of the Wild Hunt of Norse/Anglo Saxon mythology. This was when the one-eyed all-seeing shamanic god Odin rode across the skies with his ghostly hunters. Accompanied by ravens, trolls and otherworldly psychopomps, or soul guides, these creatures were later demonised and reduced to satanic hordes and discarnate spirits, harbingers of death, bringing misfortune on anyone who saw them. A piece of propaganda later introduced by the Christian world to ensure the midwinter revelries did not take place.

Despite these attempts at censor, there is much in this old mythology that has survived and preserved in our Christmas customs. Odin rode a large muscular horse called Sleipnir, said to have eight legs, who carried his master through the nine worlds held in the branches and roots of Yggdrasil, the World Tree, a clear reference to shamanic journeying. Reindeer are also important shamanic animals with their antlers rising to the heavens and their hooves firmly on the ground, and it is significant that eight of them are said to pull Santa’s sleigh. Odin also dropped presents at the foot of his sacred pine tree for the faithful, a custom preserved in the laying of Christmas presents under the Christmas tree.

And trailing behind the Wild Hunt were the Oak and the Holly Lords perennially engaged in a battle of mythic proportions. Robert Graves analysis of an ancient Welsh poem called ‘The Battle of the Trees’ unravelled a remarkable and ancient story telling the unfolding of the natural year through a tree alphabet encrypted with sacred knowledge and ritual.[1] The year was divided into two halves to reflect the power of the waxing and waning sun. The Oak king was the Lord of the Waxing Sun who reached his peak at Midsummer, but was then supplanted, or even sacrificed, by the Holly king who ruled the part of the year when the Sun’s power was waning. At the Winter Solstice, it was Oak that supplanted Holly, who then ruled over the waxing year. Graves uncovered evidence for this Earth centred belief from Turkey to the West of Ireland with different cultures flavouring the narrative with their own character.

In Britain, the Robin Redbreast embodied the spirit of the New Year, signalling the return of the Sun. This half of the year is associated with holly, which now produces red berries amidst its spiky evergreen leaves, hence the association of robins with holly at Yule. Just after the Solstice, around Christmas Eve, Robin Red Breast sets out to kill his predecessor, the Gold Crest Wren. Men would hunt wrens with birch rods at this time, driving them out of ivy bushes, indicating that Ivy as the Lord of the Waxing Sun. The Robin is said to murder the Wren, his father/predecessor, acquiring his red breast as a result. For the rest of the year, the Wren was considered sacred and it was forbidden to collect her eggs.

Graves also introduced another dimension to his Battle of the Trees analysis, for the gods of the waxing and waning years were revealed as pawns who competed for, and each in turn lose, the love of the triple goddess, Creatrix of Nature, who he called the White Goddess. There are considerable depths to this story, but one of the most pertinent is the subscript of the day out of time, the 23rd December just after the Solstice, the magical thirteenth month which was not ruled over by the tree alphabet. This was the Epilogue, the story that told of the birth, life and resurrection of the god of the waxing year. The time when the Goddess gave birth anew to herself and the sacred child, bringing about redemption and the resurrection of the life- giving power of the Sun.

Christianity has of course taken over all the major aspects of this ancient narrative in the contemporary version of the Christian story. Now it is Christ, born of the Virgin, who shall redeem us, and his birth takes place at the Winter Solstice. His cousin, John the Baptist takes on the role of the Midsummer tannist and throughout the Middle Ages, 24th June was referred to as the Eve of St John.

Nowhere is this ancient knowledge so explicitly preserved and intertwined with Christianity as in the carol the Holly and the Ivy, cheerfully sung in chapels and churches up and down the country at Christmas. The chorus ‘the holly and the ivy, when they were both full grown, of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown’ implies Holly is Lord of Midwinter, with the Ivy as Midsummer Lord. The birth of the sacred child by the goddess and the sacrificial aspects of the story are clearly indicated, albeit in a very mild form, by the  next verses, ‘the holly bears a blossom was white as lily flower, and Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to be our dear Saviour’ and ‘the holly bears a berry as red as any blood and that Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to do poor sinners good.’

The ‘prickle’ of the Holly is a premonition of the crown of thorns worn by the sacrificial Christ and the bark of the holly, as bitter as any gall, mentioned later in the carol, is a reference to the redemptive Christ, who was offered gall to drink in place of water whilst dying on the cross.

Though we now celebrate the birth of the sacred child (Christ) at Christmas, in Anglo Saxon Britain, it was the Mother who was honoured on the 24th December. This was when the sacred tree was taken into the home and decorated, a living representative of the World Tree, with the star at the top representing the Pole Star around which everything turned. The Yule log was lit as a symbol of the returning Sun, and food and gifts were shared to honour the abundance of the Earth. Even Santa Claus, with his obligatory red suit, is actually the old Holly king or Robin Redbreast in disguise, with his elf helpers a reference to the fairy folk of the Old Religion, and his magical flying reindeer and Christmas Eve night journey a memory of the Wild Hunt of Odin.


[1] Robert Graves, ‘The White Goddess’ Faber and Faber, 1997