How are you doing, dear reader? Hanging in there? It’s been a ferocious year, to be sure, and this time of year always brings a hearty dose of chaos and coldness – well, at least if you live in the northern hemisphere’s temperate zone, which I do and so you’re just going to have to deal with my complaints on the issue okay?!
Heh, sorry. Like I said, it’s cold, it’s busy, and the year’s end wears a lot of us thin.
But! Let’s not forget that the end of one year also means the beginning of the next. That goes back a lot further than arbitrary calendar dates and bad decisions at the office New Year’s party:
This week, the night December 20th turned to the 21st marked the winter solstice — the longest night of the year. Now that we’ve endured that longest, darkest night, every day for the next half of the year will be a little longer, a little brighter. All over the world, our ancestors celebrated the solstice as the day the sun starts to come back.
Okay, sure, from an astronomical standpoint it’s technically when the earth starts to come back towards the sun, the general idea still holds that hey phew it’s not so dark and now maybe just maybe it’ll start to inch towards being less blisteringly cold. I, for one, think that’s worth celebrating.
Pagan cultures around the world seem to agree — and that’s where the Holly King comes in.
Every culture that celebrates the winter solstice has a unique way of doing it, but it can be difficult to trace these traditions back to their roots. Some of them may predate written history, or records have been lost over time. Traditions also change over time, and these changes can become complex quickly when cultures interact with each other. Many of the traditions that we now associate with Christmas started out as pagan traditions that early Christians adopted to make their religion more palatable to European pagans. The Christmas tree is one of the most famous examples of this.
So who is the Holly King, and where does he come from?
Modern depictions often make him look like Santa Claus — so is this just another example of a pagan idea repurposed for a Christian holiday?
It’s not quite as simple as that.
The Holly King is a neopagan figure who represents parallel figures from various cultures. In the neopagan tradition, the Holly King has dominion over the half of the year from the summer solstice until the winter solstice — the part of the year when the nights get longer and darker in the northern hemisphere. He does constant battle with the Oak King, the younger counterpart who dominates the other half of the year, when the days are getting longer. On the night of the winter solstice, the Oak King wrests control back from the Holly King, representing a rebirth of light and warmth.
So what culture does the Holly King come from?
Eh, um… a bunch of them?
Here’s the thing — the Holly King, at least by that particular name, traces back to The White Goddess, a book first published in 1948 by Robert Graves. Graves proposes the idea of several essential archetypes that appear across multiple pantheons in a kind of pan-European folklore consolidation. The Holly King and Oak King’s constant battle is one of these archetypes. Graves argued that it applies to rival pairs such as Gawain and the Green Knight in Arthurian legend, Lugh and Balor of Irish mythology, or the robin and the wren based on their symbolic roles in wintertime folklore across Europe. Though Graves earned some acclaim for the book’s poetry — notably, it inspired Sylvia Plath — scholars criticized its lack of academic rigor.
So the Holly King certainly shares some heritage with the pagan traditions that shaped European characterizations of Santa Claus. Whether or not he predates Santa is basically a question of whether or not such an archetypal god figure actually exists, which is a question of faith that’s, uh, not really in my wheelhouse.
A better question — meaning, one that I can address with empirical evidence — is how far back we have record of any stories or folklore about the Holly King. I, at least, was unable to trace that specific name for him back further than The White Goddess.
It’s kind of a no-brainer that the idea of a battle between the seasons goes back a lot further than 1948. Not everybody personified summer and winter into two warring kings, of course, but since we’re talking about the Holly King, let’s roll with that.
As a monster — or god — it’s hard to find a more classic villain than the chill of winter. Yet the Holly King isn’t simply villainous or monstrous, and neither is winter. Neopagan descriptions of the Holly King make sure to note that, while he does have dominion over the darkening part of the year, that doesn’t make him evil. Instead, he represents the natural process of aging and death that forms a necessary part of the cycle of life.
Because of that, you can’t have the Holly King without the Oak King. The two are inextricably tied together, two sides of same coin locked in a repeating cycle of wax and wane.
No matter how dark it gets, the Oak King will always fight to bring back the light.
So, as the earth turns back towards the sun and we brace ourselves for the start of 2017, remember that. And whether it’s the solstice you celebrate or some other kind of religious or secular festivities — have a happy holiday!