by Mark Miles
Holly has always been one of my favorite trees. Something about the vibrant contrast of red and green, the sharp and glossy leaves, and the endurance of harsh winter weather appeals to me. Perhaps because I was born in December I have a particular fondness for the chill air and long nights, and any other living being that can withstand them has my respect. I also feel a kindred sympathy with anyone who has such an attractive yet prickly personality. Perhaps those adjectives describe me from time to time, though I’m not sure I look as good in crimson red.
Beyond my kinship with holly, I also have English holly (Ilex aquifolium) in my front yard by the southeast corner of my house. I hadn’t trimmed the tree for a few years and consequently decided to remedy the situation a couple weeks ago. It wasn’t as hard to prune as I expected, but I did gain a new appreciation for the dexterity of the squirrels in my yard, who somehow manage to avoid the prickly parts of the plant with the skill of trained acrobats. When I was done trimming I took some of the branches and made a display of them, which is still sitting in my living room on the cold air return, somewhat unglamorously.
Another task that I’ve been putting off for some time that combines the attractive and the prickly sensibilities is the traditional song Greensleeves to a Ground. It’s a very, very old melody, traceable back to the late sixteenth century in England. Some have speculated that it was even written by Henry VIII, but the publication of the score decades after the monarch’s demise seems to refute that. In any case, attribution for the song is ambiguous, and the composer remains unconfirmed to this day.
Something about that ambiguousness of authorship bleeds into the mood of the music. Though there is a decided melancholy, there is sweetness too. The traditional lyrics for this–which have nothing to do with a child in a manger–express the longing and lament of a lover who has lost his beloved and wants to talk with her again, despite the fact that she apparently doesn’t share the sentiment. It’s as if the lyricist has taken a few lessons from the holly tree, combining the attractive and the prickly in a compelling combination that demands attention.
In addition, this piece is devilishly difficult in its transcription for recorder and requires a level of technical mastery of the instrument which is hard to hear but easy to feel if you ever try to play it for yourself. For this reason, the version which I recently performed and uploaded to my YouTube channel is truncated. I’ve only included the first half of the song, which is still a not-inconsiderable two and a half minutes of music.
Though there is much ambiguity and ambivalence in the song and the plant, they both point toward something that’s less ambiguous. The New Year is almost here, and it’s heralded by both the song and the tree. The holly tree is perhaps the more obvious herald of the New Year, since it’s crimson berries are usually the only source of vibrant color in the winter landscape. But the song is also a herald of the New Year, as evidenced by one of its alternate versions. Titled The Old Year Now Away Is Fled, the lyrics are as close to a benediction as I can think.
The old year now away is fled,
The new year it is entered;
Then let us all our sins down tread
And joyfully all appear.
Let’s merry be this holiday,
And let us run with sport and play,
Hang sorrow, let’s cast care away.
God send us a merry new year!