Tall oaks, branch-charmed by the earnest stars,
Dream, and so dream all night without a stir.
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown.
The Holly and the Ivy
The cycle of fertility has been expressed in many god-forms. One of these – or, rather, one pair- which has persisted from pagan times to contemporary folklore is that of the Oak King and Holly King, gods respectively of the Waxing Year and the Waning Year.
The Oak king rules from midwinter to midsummer, the period of expansion and growth; the Holly King from midsummer to midwinter, the period of withdrawal and rest. They are the light and dark twins, each being the other’s alternate self. They are not “good” and “evil”; each represents a necessary phase in the natural rhythm, so, in this sense, both are good.
At the two change-over points, they meet in combat. The incoming twin – Oak King at midwinter, Holly King at midsummer – “slays” the outgoing one. But the defeated twin is not truly dead; he has merely withdrawn, during the six months of his brother’s rule into the Caer Arianrhod, the Castle of ever-turning Silver Wheel.
We wonder how many of today’s Yuletide Mummers realize just how ancient a theme they are enacting. In the mummer’s drama, which varies a little throughout the British Isles, St. George defeats the Turkish Knight in a sword fight – and then immediately cries out that he has slain his brother. On come the Doctor with his black bag and restores the Turkish Knight to life.
The Yuletide St. George is the Oak King, and the Turkish Knight is the Holly King. The present pattern of mummers’ plays dates back to the fifteenth century, but its foundations are obviously very much older than that.
Another folk-custom survival of the theme is that of Hunting the Wren at the winter solstice. The wren is the Holly King’s bird and the robin – his red breast doubtless proclaiming the reborn sun – the Oak King’s.
Hunting the wren used to be done in actuality, the killing of the unfortunate bird being sympathetic magick to ensure the end of their master’s reign. Today, it is merely symbolic. In scattered places in Ireland, for instance, adult “Wren Boys” wearing conical straw hats completely covereing their heads and faces, still dance and sing around their billages on St. Stephen’s Day, 26th December. And more universally, on the same day in the West of Ireland at least, children (usually in fancy dress and with their faces made up) go from door to door carrying bunches of holly and reciting their rhyme:
The wren, the wren, the king of the birds,
On Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze:
Up with the kettle and down with the pan,
and give us some money to bury the wren.
Inevitably, the two brothers are also rivals for the favors of the Goddess; and this theme crops up frequently in legend – for example in that of the Welsh maiden Creiddylad, for whom the Oak Knight and the Holly Knight must fight, by King Arthur’s ruling, “ever first of May, until the day of Doom”.
Creiddylad was the daughter of Llud, Nudd and Llyr (Lire), the original of Shakespeare’s King Lear, and equatable to Cordelia – the only one of Lear’s daughters who defied her father’s orders and picked her own man.
Sir Gawain in The Romance of Gawain and the Green Knight incidentally, is a type of the Oak King, and his rival the Green Knight, with his holly-bush club, represents the Holly King. They agree to behead each other alternately, each year.
Let us look at the significance of these two trees.
“The worship of the oak tree or of the oak god appears to have been shared by all branches of the Aryan stock in Europ.
The oak obviously symbolizes strength and longevity; its acorn is expressively phallic; and its roots are said to extend as far below ground as its branches do into the air – the oak god thus having domi9nion over Heaven, Earth and the Underworld.
The oak was central to Celtic religious symbology. It was the tree of the Dagda, the supreme Irish father god. The Druids’ very name probably derives from a root meaning “oak-men”. They did not worship in buildings but in oak groves.
The wood of the ritual midsummer fire was always oak, as was the Yule log. it was on this fire that the Oak King’s human representative was at one time ritually burned alive. And, the Yule log often recalled its sacrificial significance by having a man’s figure drawn on it.
In Christian times, the summer solstice has been taken over by St. John. Every St. John’s Eve, 24th June, bonfires jewelled the landscape from horizon to horizon when the Sun set. All the associations of this custom, which, we, as witches, also lit our midsummer fire on 24th June, instead of on 21st June as is the usual Craft practice.
So to the holly. Although the Holly King’s reign is one of withdrawal culminating in apparent lifelessness, his symbology in trust while it rests. The holly’s leaves are evergreen, and its bright berries glow red when all else is bare of fruit. And, of course, the harvest comes early in his reign; it is he who oversees the product of his brother’s fertility.
It used to be considered unlucky to keep any holly, with its waning-year symbolism, in the house after Twelfth Night.
If the Holly King’s reign begins with the harvest, it ends with Saturnalia, with the reels of Yultide. And its God, Saturn of the oak’s Jupiter, tends to appear as a lovable buffoon, red-cheeked, jolly and bearing gifts. The Holly King is the true origin of Santa Claus rather than the fourth century bishop of Myra who is his official prototype and who factual history is virtually non-existent, in contrast to his body of kindly legend.
In some Wiccan traditions, the Goddess is seen as ruling the summer, and the God the winter. But, mother Earth and her mysterious lunar sister are powerfully there all the time; and so is the Horned God of Nature, whether he roams the cornfields or the snowfields.
So to represent the god-aspect of the cycle of the seasons, both conceptually and ritually, who better than the “lily white boys, clothed all in gree O’ – the twin Gods of the Waxing and Waning Year? For they are the two faces of the One who is One – but, unlike the One is the song, never alone.
From: The Wtiches’ God by Janet and Stewart Farrar