Tag Archives: hms victory

The Holly and the Ivy (and the cabbage and the cigarette)

Dad is having his revenge. Today as we were driving to the local raw food/wrap shop to pick up scraps for the pigs, chickens, turkeys, ducks, et al (yes, there is still some farming going on around here) he started singing the old English Christmas carol, The Holly and the Ivy and then launched into a list of factoids relating to holly (evergreen, red-berry-bearing and manly) and ivy (evergreen, sinewy and feminine). The fact both plants are green in the depths of winter is reason enough to celebrate them in song, but what was really interesting was the way each had been assigned a gender.

Holly Tree by E. Colin Williams (Tree a day drawing project)

Holly Tree by E. Colin Williams
(Tree a day drawing project)

This tradition of association with one gender or the other was taken to some strange lengths back in the day. According to Dad (and his online sources), ancient Brits (as in, folk of the British Isles who lived long, long ago – not doddering fools living in Leicester) used to hold singing contests when there wasn’t much else to do when the days are short and frosty. It was the men against the women, singing their hearts out in praise of their respective shrubbery, dissing that of the opposition. All, of course, was done in good fun and, apparently, at the end of these vocal feuds everyone kissed and made up under the mistletoe.

Hm. I was still pondering all this when Dad mentioned a powder room and I immediately thought of a small room in which British types powdered their noses and otherwise readied themselves for well-mannered conversations with other primped and prepped pommies. “They were lined with copper,” Dad was on a roll and, as I was imagining what fancy powder rooms they used to have, he was chatting on about how the fine sailing vessel HMS Victory (the one Lord Nelson sailed into the Battle of Trafalgar) was made with wood from 6,000 oak trees and did I know that it was the oldest-still-in-commission ship in the British fleet and currently serves as a museum ship… All of this was coming at me rapid fire as I was driving and, I confess, I was still struggling to understand why anyone would line a powder room with copper.

“So, why did they line them with copper?”

“Because of sparks.”

At which point I burst out laughing because, of course, Dad was talking about powder rooms in old wooden gun ships where, yes, sparks would be a bit of a problem with all that gunpowder lying around. And I was thinking of little old English ladies who had consumed one too many helpings of cabbage and then slipped off to the powder room for an illicit cigarette.