A good Winter Solstice to all! On the longest night of the year, we celebrate the time of the Holly King!
At Midsummer (June 21), the Oak King, who represents the waxing of the year when all is full, green and ripe, is at the height of his power. His counterpart and adversary, the Holly King, is at his weakest, and the two engage year-round in an eternal battle – two parts of a whole, yin and yang, darkness and light.
But, as the autumnal equinox approaches, the tables turn and the Holly King begins to regain his strength. At Midwinter (December 21), when the year wanes and the days are shortest, his powers peak and he reigns over a world of frosted fields, snow-dusted evergreens and the dark half of the year.
The same struggle is represented in the 14th century chivalric romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Gawain (“Hawk of May”), one of King Arthur’s knights, is challenged on New Year’s Day to a beheading contest by the Green Knight, who bears a bough of holly as his insignia. Gawain defeats the Green Knight, who magically arises and makes the victor promise to return the following year to do battle once again.
The winter king’s symbol is English or European holly (Ilex aquifolium) which represents truth and reincarnation and was worn by druids as protection against evil spirits. The Romans used the plant as decoration during their winter festival of Saturnalia. The fact that this evergreen plant is found amongst the undergrowth in oak forests may have contributed to the legend of the two battling kings. Dense holly stands, with their spiny leaves, provide much-needed shelter for birds and deer, and the brilliant red fruit, which matures in late fall and becomes softer and more palatable after a frost, is an important food source for many forest creatures. (A profusion of berries was thought to be a portent of a harsh winter — the earth goddess’ way of providing extra food during the hardest months.) During the Middle Ages, I. aquifolium was used as winter fodder for livestock.
Holly’s bright green leaves and vibrant berries remind us that, even when all is cold and quietly sleeping, the world – and hope – still lives. It is a promise, even in the darkest of days, that light will return, and Spring is just around the corner. As Midwinter night comes to a close, here’s a merry little ditty from another king, Henry VIII of England:
Green groweth the holly,
So doth the ivy.
Though winter blasts blow never so high,
Green groweth the holly.