Winter Solstice: the Holly King vs The Oak King

‘Things have to get worse before they can get better.’

With each passing day of autumn we lose daylight. However, as the Winter Solstice arrives, the shortest day arrives, and we gain more daylight going forward. Ancient people, who spent more time outdoors, were acutely aware of this annual ebb and flow of daylight, the two poles of which are the Winter Solstice and its summer counterpart. For the Celts, what we know as Christmas holly trees had a place in their rituals marking these two poles, each of which indicate when the sun is at its greatest distance from the equator.

In Celtic mythology the Oak King and the Holly King were twins, pitted against each other in a never-ending fight for supremacy. Oak Tress, sacred to the Celts, lose their leaves, while the Christmas holly trees are evergreen. As cold weather approached, the Celts marveled at how the evergreen Christmas holly trees, hidden amongst the leafy oaks the rest of the year, now stood out prominently on an otherwise barren landscape. The Holly King had won out, as it were, as the incarnations of his twin brother had shed all their leaves and stood naked in defeat.

Every year at the Winter and Summer Solstices, these two fight for dominance. In actuality, these brothers are two parts of the same thing, the waxing and waning of the yearly cycles of the Earth. The Holly King rules the waning year, from Mid-summer to Yule, and the Oak King rules the waxing year from Yule to Mid-summer. The Holly King represents darkness, decay and destruction, however, also represents inner knowledge and mysteries. The Oak King, on the other hand, represents light, growth and expansion. These two mighty kings fight a symbolic battle to win the Crown of the year, at Yule when the Oak King wins, and at Mid-summer when the Holly King wins.

Despite being enemies, without one, the other would no longer exist.

Images by Anne Stokes

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