This year, I discovered the Holly and the Ivy. In early November, I was writing at a Starbucks in Matsumoto, Japan. Unexpectedly, I heard this rendition of the song playing. the deep symbolism and beauty nearly knocked me over. Do yourself a favor and listen to this before reading the rest of this. And ignore the awkward album cover.

You can read the lyrics here:

And the video:

At first, you might think, “Why are those two plants mentioned in this song?” That question expresses why I love this song: its subtlety. I see three layers of meaning. The most obvious is singing about Mary bearing Jesus for our redemption.

The second is the bits about the holly. It represents the Messiah. We begin the song by saying that when it is fully grown, the holly will bear the crown. As we progress through the verses, the chorus and the parts about Mary bearing Jesus are interspersed with the holly having a pure white blossom, a blood-red berry, a thorn-sharp prickle, and gall-bitter bark. These represent Jesus’ purity, shed blood, thorn of crowns, and the bitter gall given Him on the cross.

Interspersed, we hear a breathtaking picture:

O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing of the choir.

A gorgeous image of a bright, wintry Christmas morning somewhere in rural Europe comes to mind as I hear this repeated again and again. This offsets the other messages of the song with a simple, natural beauty. And somehow, the three all mix together to give this song a fullness that much Christian music lacks. I love it because it’s not trying so hard to be “Christian.” There’s no problem throwing in an image of nature and music as the chorus.

And thus we end: the holly and the ivy are both full well grown, and the holly bears the crown. After His suffering… well, you get the picture.

Beauty. Glory. Depth. All that Christian music should be.

Merry Christmas.