Listen to this track by high-voiced Yes frontman, and holiday season enthusiast Jon Anderson. It’s the Christian-meets-pagan holiday favourite, and sang straight-up, “The Holly & the Ivy” as taken from Anderson’s 1985 Holiday-themed (sort of) LP Three Ships. This is a sort of stealth Christmas album, in that it also features some wintry, yet not specifically Christmas-related original songs by Anderson alongside traditional Christmas carols.
The song is clearly derived from a pagan past, with images of the titular holly and ivy having once been important elements to the religions of the late Roman empire, and also of Druidic religions that dominated the British Isles before they were Christianized. This suits Anderson’s milleu perfectly, having been an old hand at using pan-religious imagery and language in his songs, both with Yes and without.
But, what of the songs on this album?
First off, it must be said that this record isn’t really branded as a Christmas record as such. There are no images of Anderson in a santa suit, or wearing a ridiculous sweater in front of a fire, or nursing a steaming mug of coco while reclining in a Christmas sleigh. It could be that this record is more about the inspiration of Christmas. And a red and green cover would be just as misleading.
And to be perfectly frank, it’s a pretty weird record, all told. A well-trod carol like this (one of my favourites) as well as other carols (“I Saw Three Ships” being one, and ostensibly the title track …) sits along side Anderson’s own songs which really aren’t blatant Christmas songs at all. What did he have in mind when he put this thing together? Who knows?
But, I like this version. Sue me. I find Anderson’s voice to be affecting. And as I mentioned – I love the song in general. I love all of the weird Christmas carols that seem to be pointing somewhere else other than he expected places associated with the Christmas story. I like the idea that the Christmas myth is a more primal thing than a simple story about the birth of a saviour in one time, and one place. For me, Christmas is a time to think about how humanity is trying to connect with something greater, whether it’s to some mystical cosmic force, to a personal god, or even just to each other and to all of the things we collectively treasure.
But, as for Anderson’s record, and this version of “The Holly & the Ivy”, it’s pretty cheesy, maybe. OK, it is. There are piles, and piles of synths on this, and needlessly over the top production flourishes. The mid-80s are all over this thing. But, I think because this element of pagan-meets-Jesus is an overriding theme, it is a unique statement, even if it is utterly, utterly of its time.
For more information about Jon Anderson, check out Jon Anderson’s website.
[PS: Happy Christmas, Leslie!]