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The Story of Holly and Ivy

For the last few years now, I have been feeling increasingly bah, humbug about Christmas. It just seems to get earlier and pushier every year, which frankly always makes me want to dig my heels and fold my arms. I'm usually busy pretending it isn't happening until at least the first week in December, at which point I start to panic and feel overwhelmed at the amount of shopping, planning and cooking I still have to do. I never seem to learn to just embrace it a little sooner.

Anyway, in an effort to be a little less Grinch and a little more Who, I've decided to do some Christmas reading this year. I'm hoping it will get me into the spirit of things and keep me calm when I've run out of mince pies and satsumas.

I started with this one: The Story of Holly and Ivy by Rumer Godden.

The original 1958 cover
The original 1958 cover

What's it about?

Ivy is an orphan. In true Scrooge style, she is the only one at the orphanage with nowhere to go for Christmas. On Christmas Eve, she's basically bundled onto a train to a different orphanage, and left to her own devices, (at the age of six!)

"She put Ivy's suitcase in the rack and gave her a packet of sandwiches, an apple, a ticket , two shillings, and a parcel that was her Chritmas present; on to Ivy's coat she pinned a label with the address of the Infants' Home. 'Be a good girl' said Miss Shepherd."

Of course, she doesn't get to the Infants' home, because Ivy has decided that she will go to her grandmother's house instead - and she gets off the train to go looking for someone willing to take the role.

In the meantime, Holly is a Christmas doll who is hanging out in a toyshop window, waiting and hoping for someone to come along and buy her. She spends Christmas Eve watching all her friends find homes and being bullied by Abracadabra, a domineering toy owl.

And completing the triangle is Mrs Jones, a lonely middle aged lady with no children, who decides on a whim that she will buy and decorate a Christmas tree, even though she has nothing to put under it but some hankies for her husband.

I won't tell you any more about what happens, but suffice to say (it being a Christmas story and all), everything works out magically for all concerned. Except Abracadabra.

Sheila Bewley's 1971 illustrations
Sheila Bewley's 1971 illustrations
Barbara Cooney's illustration from 1985
Barbara Cooney's illustration from 1985

Was it any good?

So, yes, it is a little contrived. Everything falls neatly into place for everyone and they all get what they wished for. Godden does throw in a little suspense - the toy shop is closed before Holly is sold; how will she and Ivy be united now? Peter the toy shop assistant loses the shop key; how will Holly Ivy get into the shop now? Obviously, as an adult, it isn't hard to see how it will all work out, but you have to just suspend your adultness for 76 pages and enjoy it. Pretend you are a kid at Christmas and overindulge on the sweetness 🙂

One thing I'm afraid I didn't enjoy so much were the illustrations. No offense to Sheila Bewley but I really felt the drawings in my edition didn't really do the story justice. They were a little cold and harsh for my liking - I would have liked to see a lot more warmth to go with what is really a very heartwarming story. I saw some of the illustrations from the Barbara Cooney edition (originally published in 1985) which look lovely. So if you're going to track it down, I would definitely go with that one.

On the whole, I really enjoyed The Story of Holly and Ivy and can recommend it to anyone who needs a dose of Christmas spirit to get them in the mood for this year's festivities. It has also left me with pervading sense that everything will work out ok in the end, and that stressing really isn't worth it 🙂


Details and Availability

  • Title: The Story of Holly and Ivy
  • Author: Rumer Godden
  • Illustrator: Sheila Bewley
  • Date: 1958 (this edition 1985)

The Story of Holly and Ivy is still available new and you can pick up a digital copy pretty cheaply. Or why not look for a nice secondhand copy?

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