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All That Is Fair: The Holly and the Ivy


This year we are hosting Andrew Peterson’s Behold the Lamb of God for the first time in a while.  It’s been 5 years since we had them at Southwood.  As many of you already know, we are in for such a treat.  Peterson is a masterful songwriter and arranger, and his crew of traveling minstrels represents a sampling of top-shelf Nashville songwriters and session musicians.  These guests will be some of the best that the industry has to offer.

I have loved Behold the Lamb of God for many years.  Back in 1999, when I was a student at Samford University, I saw Andrew play at a large Baptist church there in Birmingham.  He tried out a bunch of new Christmas songs on the audience.  I couldn’t believe my ears as he played “Matthew’s Begats” and “Gather ‘Round Ye Children, Come.”  This Christmas album has been such a consistent backdrop to my holidays. 

The songs on the album walk through the story of Jesus from Genesis to Revelation.  But there are a couple of instrumental palette cleansers as well.  One of these is his interpretation of the song “The Holly and the Ivy.”  It’s a familiar melody, and his setting of it is the best I’ve ever heard.  The warm finger plucked guitar backdrop that upholds a perfect wedding of mandolin and fiddle on the melody… it’s exquisite!  It’s a short, simple, beautiful interlude, much like the text of the original carol.

The old English carol describes the features of the holly, a humble, prickly shrub, and uses those features to tell the story of Christ’s birth and death and resurrection.  What a lovely thought!  And, by using this melody as a break from the singing in Behold the Lamb of God, it’s almost as if Peterson is trying to clue us in to his own self-understanding.  He probably views himself and his songs as a somewhat boring, prickly shrub that might be used to tell the whole story, the story of a “brave little boy who came here to die like a man.”  And there for every iota of who he is and what he has made becomes more valuable, as it magnifies someone greater — a Savior for all mankind.

Here is the text of the carol.  Read it, then listen to Peterson’s version (perhaps at Southwood on Thursday night, December 14), be blessed, and have a Merry Christmas!

The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown.

The holly bears a blossom,
As white as the lily flower,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ,
To be our sweet Saviour.

The holly bears a berry,
As red as any blood,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
For to do us sinners good.

The holly bears a prickle,
As sharp as any thorn,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
On Christmas Day in the morn.

The holly bears a bark,
As bitter as any gall,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
For to redeem us all.

The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown.