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This carol first appears in the current form in the 19th Century, although there is a possible untraced broadside of 1715. There are 2 broadsides of the words in the Bodleian Collection, namely Douce adds 137(25) and Douce adds 137(63), respectively, dated c. 1817-1827 and c. 1812-1830. The lyrics are the same as those in Bramley & Steiner, 1871. Versions of the carol have often been collected in oral tradition, mainly in the South and West of England. A related carol, The Holly Bears a Berry or the Sans Day Carol, was collected in Cornwall. Most of the collected versions have tunes in 6/8 time, but the version noted from Mrs Clayton is in 3/4. Strange as it may sound, Mrs Clayton’s tune is rare and unusual! Many people in the English folk music scene sing the song to a 6/8 tune which appear to derive from a version collected by Maud Karpeles and Pat Shaw from Peter Jones of Ross-on-Wye in 1952. Harry Boucher’s tune is more typical of most collected versions but has a distinctive twist to it.
Holly and Ivy have long been seen as symbols, perhaps of male and female and several writers have read depths of symbolism into the song. Holly and Ivy have long been used as decoration at Christmas time and have found their way into several songs. Henry VIII wrote a song
Green grow’th the holly, So does the Ivy
While the poet Robert Herrick (1591-1674) wrote:
Down with the rosemary, and so Down with the bays and mistletoe; Down with the holly, ivy, all Wherewith ye deck’s the Christmas hall.
Mrs Clayton’s version has been sung throughout the English-speaking world. Artists who have sung it include Roger Whittaker, The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Tijuana Brass, The Mediaeval Baebes, Natalie Cole and José Carreras, Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band, Kings College Choir, Vienna Boys Choir, Annie Lennox, Bing Crosby, Cliff Richard and Aled Jones.