The Virtual Musical Advent Calendar, December 18: The Holly & The Ivy
The listed song for today’s Virtual Musical Advent Calendar is The Holly & The Ivy, but you should consider today’s entry a celebration of the growing resurgence of those traditional carols that blend the imagery of Christian Nativity with old English paganism.
In the forests of England, both of The Holly & The Ivy’s titular plants are noticeably distinct in that they do not lose their deep color in the snowy winters. Because of this, holly in particular was considered sacred to the Druids. Its leaves’ evergreen nature represented the hope for continued life through winter’s scarcity; its crimson berries were a reminder of the animal blood sacrifices they performed to the gods in order to ensure that life. The Druids took the concept of Christianity’s approaching salvation and incorporated it into their already existing celebration of the solstice’s similar promise.
Here is a great version by Annie Lennox:
The Boar’s Head Carol is another Christmas song that focuses on the English history of animal sacrifice on the solstice. In this case it is the sacrifice of the wild boar, whose severed head was presented in lavish ceremony at yuletide feasts. As you might imagine, there are countless versions of The Boar’s Head Carol that evolved throughout England, Scotland, Wales and even Ireland. Here is the version recorded most these days, in this case by the Chieftans:
While The Boar’s Head Carol and The Holly & The Ivy take their blood imagery from the Druids, The Coventry Carol’s sacrificial imagery comes straight from the second chapter of The Book of Matthew. The song is a mournful lullaby sung by a mother to her son, as she awaits Herod’s ordered Massacre of the Innocents. It is traditionally sung a cappella, but modern artists such as Loreena McKennitt are recording the carol with instrumentation:
Lastly we have Jesus Ahattonia, better known as The Huron Carol.
The Huron Carol is a actually a bit different from the above selections. It’s not a folk song that evolved over time in England; Saint Jean de Brébeuf wrote it in Canada in 1642. But Brébeuf’s carol is an interesting listen when juxtaposed with its cross-Atlantic cousins. Just as his forefathers incorporated Druid traditions into their ministries’ conversion stories, so too did Brébeuf when dealing with the Huron tribes. He wrote the song in the Huron language, but here is a bit of the English translation:
Within a lodge of broken bark
The tender Babe was found,
A ragged robe of rabbit skin
Enwrapp’d His beauty round;
But as the hunter braves drew nigh,
The angel song rang loud and high:
“Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born,
In excelsis gloria.”
The earliest moon of wintertime
Is not so round and fair
As was the ring of glory
On the helpless infant there.
The chiefs from far before him knelt
With gifts of fox and beaver pelt.
Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born,
In excelsis gloria.
Sadly, YouTube does not have my favorite version of The Huron Carol, the one performed by modern-day Canadian Bruce Cockburn. But if you’re curious to hear a snippet on iTunes, you can find it here. For those wanting to stay on page, here is a nice version by the Five Fifths:
Click here to see all selections for The Virtual Musical Advent Calendar.