Song Analysis

Holly, Ivy and Rose

Tuesday 16 August 2011, by Cécile Desbrun

"Holly, Ivy and Rose" from Tori’s seasonal record Midwinter Graces is a mixture of two well-known carols: "Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming" and "The Holly and the Ivy."

"Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming" ("Es ist ein Ros entsprungen" in its German original form) is a Christmas carol as well as a Marian hymn. The text was written by an anonymous author and it was first printed in 1582 in Gebetbuchlein des Frater Conradus though some sources indicate it might date back to the 14th century. The song praises Mary for giving birth to Jesus and compares her to the mystical rose of the Song of Solomon 2:1 ("I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys"). Legend tells the carol originated from Trier in Germany when a monk found a blooming rose while walking in the woods on Christmas Eve. He would have placed the rose in a vase before the alter to the Virgin Mary.

The English tradition of the song (which Tori mainly based her version on) was written by Theodore Baker in 1894 but several versions of the text exist. The hymn was used by both Catholics and Protestants, the latter changing the song’s focus from Mary to Jesus in 1609.

The original song is deeply religious and is full of Christian references and symbology to Mary’s virginity and beauty and to Jesus as the Savior of humankind. Tori of course got rid of all the virginity and savior bits and only kept the phrases referring to the rose. She also chose the older translation of "as ancient sybils sung" referenced in the New Oxford Book of Carols rather than the more patriarchal "as men of old have sung."

The rose has always been a symbol for the Christ and the blood of Christ but, more importantly and accurately to Tori’s work, it is also believed to symbolize the union of the rose of Mary to the cross of Christ, and through that, the union of the feminine and masculine principles. It is often the meaning given to the Rose Cross, which was an hermetic esoteric symbol during the Middle Ages in particular but was also heavily related with the Coptic and Gnostic churches.

For the Gnostics (whose texts Tori referenced a lot throughout the years in her works and in The Beekeeper in particular), the rose is an emblem for the sacred union between Jesus and his most beloved disciple and companion, Mary Magdalene, to whom he would have been married, whether that was an actual marriage or a symbolical and spiritual one, the hieros gamos… which involved physical intimacy. The rest of Tori’s song clearly refers to Jesus and the Magdalene and mingles this symbology to the Pagan symbology of the holly and the ivy, which is at the core of the song "The Holly and the Ivy."

This second carol to be covered in Tori’s "Holly, Ivy and Rose" is an English traditional Christmas carol that is supposed to have originated from the parish of Gwennap in Cornwall from a gentleman named Thomas Beard at the church of Sans Day – Sans Day meaning "holy day" and refering to the day of the Winter Solstice. Most of the verses known to us have been heavily christianized but the song retains a lot of its older Pagan imagery, which is remarquably intertwinned to the Christian one.

The holly and the ivy are Pagan fertility symbols and more specifically symbols of life at a dark time of year because they stay green all winter and are thus categorized as "evergreens." This is why they have been mainstay of Christmas decoration since the 15th and 16th centuries at the very least but it has to be noted the European Holly was already sacred to druids because they associated it with the winter solstice.

In Pagan folklore – that has since become a part of the Wiccan tradition – the Holly King represents one half of the year and the winter solstice (called Yule in Ireland in ancient times) symbolizes his reign. As the summer draws closer, he weakens and cedes his throne to his counterpart, the Oak King. Also, Celtic folkore accounts the sun to be born of a trinity. Each one of these incarnations of the sun tries to kill the next one and symbolizes the cycle of seasons through the marriage of the Earth (Britta) to the sun. The period between the marriage of the Earth and the Sun lasts approximately nine months.

"Winter’s Carol," the tenth track of Midwinter Graces, of course refers to the same folklore, but it is interesting to note Tori created a trinity of her own in her song: the holly, the ivy and the rose, the rose blooming from the growing love between the holly and the ivy, which mingles even more Pagan and Christian symbologies and traditions.

The song also links the holly and the ivy to folk Irish customs occuring on May Day since at least another folk version of the older carol (before its lyrics were christianized by Anglican Church), collected by Cecil Sharp in the late 19th century from a woman living in Gloucestershire refers to these traditional folk dances and singing.

This older carol is commonly described as "The Contest of the Ivy and the Holly" and depicts a contest between the traditional emblems of woman (ivy) and man (holly). Indeed, in Irish folklore (around the 16th century), there was a custom of holding singing contests between men and women on midwinter (which were a bit similar to the ones held at May Day) where the men sang songs praising the holly and disaparaging the ivy while the women had to do just the opposite. A reconciliation between the masculine and feminine principles finally occured and the resolution between the two was symbolized with a kiss under the mistletoe (hence the famous tradition of kissing under the mistletoe in Anglo-Saxon countries). Pagan and Christian people alike also used the holly to make garlands they hanged over the fireplace.

Tori added consequent material to the two carols to further this imagery made up of Pagan an Christian traditions: in her song, the holly waits for the ivy to "find the love she left behind" and "find the way to be his bride some day." The marriage between the Earth and the Sun of Pagan mythology finds another symbolization here and is doubled by the symbolization of the union between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Although the artist removed all references to the cross or crucifixion, the cross is present through the rose, symbolizing the joining of male and female divine principles.

As Tash sings with her mother on this track, the voice of the little girl can be understood as the young rose blooming from the union of the holly and the ivy.

Information sources