Heralds of the New Year

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.

Holly Berries at their Peak (Mark Miles, 2016)

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.

Holly Graces Cold Air Return (Mark Miles, 2016)

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!


11 thoughts on “Heralds of the New Year

  1. rivertoprambles December 31, 2016 / 5:37 am

    Holly tree and recorder play, a fitting sound and sight as the new year rolls around. Nicely done! And all the best for 2017.

    • Mark Miles January 2, 2017 / 5:11 am

      Thank you! Wishing you all the best.

    • Mark Miles January 2, 2017 / 5:12 am

      Thank you, the recorder is certainly underrated in general.

    • Mark Miles January 2, 2017 / 5:12 am

      Thank you! Happy New Year, Cathy!

  2. nanny15 January 1, 2017 / 10:30 am

    Sorry to tell you this Mark, but have always hated ‘Greensleeves’ probably because we had to sing it in rounds at school in the fifties, here downunder, LOL.

    • Mark Miles January 2, 2017 / 5:16 am

      Haha, I can understand that. I’m actually not terribly fond of most Christmas music, since it’s often overplayed and super-saccharine. But this one does at least have some unexpected twists and turns.

  3. dtills January 2, 2017 / 5:03 pm

    HI Mark, your photography is beautiful! My blog is only a month old and I am really in need of stepping up my photog skills! My son is studying classical clarinet at Cornish college of the Arts here in Seattle and he also plays the recorder- I do understand how hard it can be, great job!
    Thanks for stopping by my blog and taking a look, Happy New Year!

  4. savithri senanayake January 2, 2017 / 6:40 pm

    Happy New year to you dear Mark!

    • Mark Miles January 9, 2017 / 6:00 am

      Thank you, Savi! Hope you’re enjoying the new year so far!

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