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Village Features

The holly bears a berry

Posted on November 27 2017 at 11:19:18

Holly and ivy

Mary Green looks at the role of wildlife in our songs and carols.

We certainly had a St Luke’s summer in October; very warm and with many leaves still green. I was eating ripe wild strawberries at the start of November.

The combination of mild weather, no frosts but high winds meant that the leaf colour wasn’t great this year – the leaves fell before having a chance to show the yellow and orange colours which are there when the green chlorophyll is withdrawn.

Also, the red colours appear in autumn after the chlorophyll has gone, more so in cold sunny weather – which is not what we had.

However, in November the oaks were still turning golden, and by then it was cooler and less windy, so the colours burned bright.

And, as I suspected, there was an amazing crop of acorns this year, covering the ground near any oak trees and delighting the squirrels, mice and jays. 

After the greys and browns of November, December often seems to offer splashes of colour. Red and green are the ones that come to mind, especially with Christmas coming.

It’s no coincidence that these colours are at the heart of our winter celebrations. Red is the colour of fire, blood and life. To have it in the middle of winter is a mark of hope for the return of spring.

This is literally true about the berries of December, especially the traditional holly but also the plentiful hawthorn haws and wild rose hips. They carry the seeds for next year, and the red is a colour recognised by birds, signalling a good feed.

The birds spread the berries around and allow new growth away from the parent tree. They can even eat the red yew berries, poisonous to us, because they pass the seeds, where the poison is, right through them.

To my mind it is a crime against nature to cut hedges at this time: wait till the berries have gone!

Green is also symbolic of life, the life of nature, of plants. The spirit of the wild is often symbolised by the Green Man, whose image is of a face surrounded by leaves, usually oak or ivy.

He often appears incongruously in carvings in churches, another example of how the Christian church absorbed pagan influences. Mistletoe, green in winter and growing mysteriously on other trees, is also accredited with magical powers and fertility.

A mixture of pagan and Christian marks this time of year. The solstice and the festival of Yule were chosen as the time to mark Christ’s birth, which wasn’t necessarily at this time of year, to capture the images of new life and rebirth already around the old fire festival.

The red and green holly and ivy became the key symbol of Christmas, along with the red-breasted robin and later the green Christmas tree.

The robin was the king of the birds, who in the old stories defeated the wren at Christmas. Again, the literal truth matches the myth, in that the robin is one of the few birds that sings through the winter.

He shows up strongly among the bare branches, whereas the little brown wren will be hidden in the low hedges.

Mind you, he is just as likely to be a she, as both sexes of robin sing – and fight! The bird wasn’t always called the robin: it was the redbreast or ruddock. It took the name Robin from Robin Goodfellow, the spirit of the greenwood – a mischievous version of the Green Man!

At Christmas we have traditionally sung songs about the plants and birds of this time. We all know one or other of the songs about the holly and the ivy. Some of these go into details about the berries, blossom and leaves (red, white and green).

They all have something about the holly being the king of trees (the holly bears the crown) or the “first tree in the greenwood.” It was one of the trees in the Celtic tree calendar, though of course it should be the queen not the king, as the ones with berries are female trees.

It’s an easy transition from the king of the woods to the “new king born today”, so the holly became a symbol of Christ.

The wren and robin also appear in songs. We probably remember “Who killed cock robin? I, said the sparrow/wren” but not many of us these days know the old song The Cutty Wren, still occasionally sung on the Celtic fringes of Britain.

The wren was hunted and killed on St Stephen’s Day, the day after Christmas (originally for real, later symbolically) and paraded to the song, which details how the wren will be dismembered and cooked.

As the song develops the wren becomes enormous, with the leftovers being used to feed the poor.

Both of these are strange old songs, but remnants of an ancient world-wide myth about the king who has to fight his opposite, is killed and comes back to life again.

You can see another version of this in the mummer’s plays performed around Christmas, where St George is the hero who dies and comes back to life.

The greenwoods and trees generally feature a lot in old songs. There is a strange old carol called Down in Yon Forest; it includes Jesus, Mary, thorns, stones, blood, water, purple and red, bells and the moon – like a jumble of all the symbols from the pagan and Christian worlds.

Another one is The Bitter Withy, which deals with an incident in Christ’s childhood when he was naughty, was smacked by Mary with a willow twig, and cursed the willow (withy) to perish at the heart before other trees.

The song reminds me of those old Mystery plays, where Christ’s birth happens in an English stable with comic sheep-robbers hiding a lamb in a cradle.

It was much more usual centuries ago to set songs and stories from religion in a background of normal life, not treat them as history.

The Cherry Tree Carol is a lovely example of this. It features Joseph as a normal bloke, getting cross when Mary asks him to reach some cherries for her as she has a craving, and he says that the father of her baby should reach them for her.

Whereupon the baby in the womb commands the cherry tree to bow down and offer her the cherries, which it does.

Moving away from Christmas, you can find trees, plants, animals and birds all over old songs. Later ones are often nostalgic songs about people who have had to leave their homes and traditional lives to find work in towns or abroad.

“The oak and the ash and the bonny rowan tree” is a well-known example – they “bloom at my home in the North country”.

There are also the Galloway hills, which are “covered with broom, with heather bells in bonny bloom,” and in another song, we “pick wild mountain thyme. . . all around the blooming heather.” 

Then there are the “Verdant braes of Skreen”, where the singer “leaned my back against a mossy oak, to view the dew on a far country.”

Lots of songs have people leaning against an oak, as it symbolises strength, but sometimes they end up with the willow tree, meaning sorrow. Love songs make great use of plants, with each flower having a symbolic meaning.

One is Let No Man Steal your Thyme, thyme being the symbol of virginity. In another, The Seeds of Love, the singer rejects the offer of “the violet, the lily and the pink” – all chastity symbols – and chooses the “red red rosy tree”, or passionate love. She ends up with the willow tree, of course.

In happier songs, courtship happens on the “Banks of the sweet primroses”, and sheep shearing takes place when there is “A rosebud in June, and violets in full bloom.”

Love often takes place in the greenwoods: there is a lovely old song with a double meaning about three maids who go to the greenwoods with a young man and he finds “The bird in the bush” for them!

If a song itself doesn’t have wildlife in it, the chorus will – “parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,” for example.

Many of the animals in old songs are either hunters or hunted. Mr Fox appears a lot, cunning and often outwitting humans. Deer are hunted, but often represent human beings, especially women. The “running of the deer” even comes in one version of the Holly and the Ivy carol.

Two crows (“Twa corbies”) discuss eating a new-slain knight who has been abandoned by his “hawk and his hounds and his lady fair”. However, “small birds sing” where lovers are, so are less threatening.

Lovers with magical powers turn themselves into animals – a hare, a bird – to challenge each other.

The cock crows to let ghosts of dead lovers know that dawn is coming and they must return to their graves. In one ancient Christmas carol a cooked cockerel rises up from its plate and crows “Christ is born!”

Life and death and life after death appear in our old songs, all tied in with the growth of plants and the seasons passing, winter giving way to spring. No wonder December is such a great month for songs and singing.

We used to sing carols all the year round, but now only at Christmas, when the old traditions still burn away in the background. I hope you get to sing some this year.

This is a poem I wrote about this time last year.

Advent Calendar
Three days of frost and glittering grass
It feels like Advent now. I like this time
Perpetual kid, I suppose, looking forward
Though I no longer know to what.
I read that someone has designed
A cheese Advent calendar, for those
Who don’t think Christmas is about chocolate
And even a craft beer Advent calendar.
Mine would have windows opening
On to signs of winter taking hold
Pink array of Christmas cactuses
And chandeliers of bilbergias,
The first Christmas card, from the Church,
Fairy Tale of New York on the radio,
Our choir singing every couple of days
Wearing red like a gardenful of robins,
Hawthorn trees suddenly stripped bare
By real blackbirds and redwings,
Days shortening, sunrises in my bedroom
And the first skin of ice on the canal.


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