creating community through celebration

Toting Ivy

About the time of the winter solstice last December, an intriguing letter floated into my mailbox. It came from the Hallam family (Jim is a former Treasurer of the California Revels board), and contained a rather delightful narration. It left me wondering just how many terms and concepts with ancient roots live on in common parlance. You’ll see what I mean.

Jim wrote, “The following description of how the solstice is celebrated was discovered years ago though the source has been forgotten.

There is a table mountain in western Ireland that the inhabitants of two villages, Docie and Mercie, have used to graze their sheep for hundreds of years. The steep faces of the mountain serve as a barrier to predators and the top is studded with large oak trees that help shelter the sheep. However, during the late fall and winter months, the villagers are required to tote feed up to the sheep. It was the Druids that started the tradition of “Toting Ivy.”

The Druids of western Ireland believed that forests are ruled by the Oak King and that he is constantly challenged by the Ivy Queen. During the winter months, when oaks are leafless and dormant and ivy is vibrantly green and thriving, the Ivy Queen gains the upper hand. Once the days start getting longer her power starts to fade. Believing that feeding the sheep ivy produces manure that strengthens the oaks and hastens the return of the sun, once the oaks start to loose their leafs the villagers start to tote ivy to the table top pasture and do so until the shortest day of the year.

On that day all the males make the last ivy tote of the year and the females prepare a magnificent feast. Both activities are leisurely and conversation is encouraged. It is a chance for neighbors to reconnect and adults to have discussions with youngsters that could never occur in mixed company.

Though the villagers no longer believe in the oak and ivy conflict, they still cherish the tradition and to this day on every winter solstice the Mercies tote, the Docies tote, and the little lambs eat ivy.”

Suffused in the warm, peaty glow of this quintessentially Irish fable, we would like to leave you with the following bit of verse:

A story’s passed from hand to hand.
Perhaps it spreads across the land,
Receiving from each tongue a new
Inflection, as it ambles through.
Language plays in ways unplanned.

For some, it’s the age makes the tale seem true.
Of course it is apt if the ear is delighted.
Of course we believe when tradition is cited.
Look out, though, we just put one over on you.

- David Parr, Artistic Director