As I write this, we are approaching the holidays surrounding the winter solstice where we sing about decking the halls with boughs of Holly. Where does this come from? When we celebrate the summer around the solstice day, the celebrations of old consist of bonfires. Where does this come from? Please keep in mind this written from a Northern Hemisphere perspective. You folks down under will celebrate the opposite holidays.
As a Pagan or a rather Polytheist, I hear several stories surrounding the Oak King and the Holly King and when one is killed and reborn and I hate to say that so many of them are incorrect. Then again, people are allowed to believe what they wish but I would like to set the record straight. As I am also an astrologer and one of the first things I noticed is there two sets of celebration surrounding modern Paganism: the first is the Lunar cycles and how we celebrate the moons of the year, thirteen full and thirteen new moons, the second set are what are labelled as the Sabbats, the eight solar celebrations. The eight are Ostara (Vernal Equinox), Beltaine, Litha (Summer Solstice), Lammas, Mabon (Autumn Equinox), Samhain (Hallowe’en), and Yule (Winter Solstice) or in other words, the solstices and equinoxes and the cross-quarter holidays.
We will examine the Sabbats with their relation to the Holly King and the Oak King. In order to understand the eight Sabbats, one must understand who the Oak King and Holly King are. They are none other than Light and Darkness.
Vernal Equinox (March 21st): This is the celebration of Light and Dark being in harmony. The Darkness does not conquer Light, nor does the Light conquer Darkness. They are at equilibrium. This is when the “battle” between the two is at its strength. It is a time of high energy and of the concept of killing off the old and bringing in the new. Many ancient Pagan celebrations consisted of burning straw men at this time, when they took dried corn/wheat from last year’s harvest to burn at this time. The Christian myth of Jesus dying on the cross (of the year) and rising again came from these ancient rituals.
Beltaine (May 1st): This is the time when the Holly King dies. Darkness dies in order to give way to Light. The Oak king defeats Holly king! This is why this time of year is a celebration of procreation and why the gods were mating along with the humans during this time. This is a time of sex, and the life bringing energies associated with it. In ancient times, people were not allowed to marry until June. If anyone is questioning why the Holly king or the Dark Lord, passes during this time think to the opposite holiday when it is the other way around during Samhain or Hallowe’en.
Litha or the Summer Solstice (June 23rd): Hooray! The Oak king reigns supreme and we celebrate the Oak King or the Bright Lord with bonfires. Long live the King! Today is the longest day of the year. People in the Northern regions celebrate the light and brightness of summer. As we celebrate the light and creation, many Pagans forget that on this day the Dark Lord or the Holly King is reborn. Many do not honour what he can bring us on this day. One must think forward to Yule and keep this in mind when we discuss the Summer Solstice as a day of growth and fertility. One must look to the subsequent holiday to see what it brings to us.
Lammas (Aug 1st): This is the day which is opposite to Imbolc where we celebrate the anticipation of the Light. Here we celebrate the first harvest. What is this, other than the Holly King’s first victory by the killing off of the crops for the first harvest? The Holly King strikes his first blow to the Oak King’s reign. We take the crops of the season in this, what can be termed as, a mini-death. We still bask in the warmth of the Oak King’s summer but things must die and we feast on what has died!
Autumn Equinox (September 23rd): This is the celebration of Light and Dark being in harmony once again. The Darkness does not conquer Light but the Darkness is getting stronger. This is a time of thanksgiving as the Light does start giving way to the darkness and we start reaping the rewards of a dying Earth. The Oak King’s light is starting to give way. He has trouble hanging on. We give thanks to the Oak King for all he has given us. How many of us give the Holly King or the Dark Lord thanks for the abundance he brings us through the Oak King’s flesh?
Samhain (October 31st): the Final Harvest or Hallowe’en. Many people realise that this is the Oak King’s death. However, many celebrate his death and rebirth. This is not his rebirth. He is dead until the Winter Solstice! This is a time for darkness to reign. The days get shorter and the nights grow longer. This is at time for us to withdraw and hide in solitude. This is why the “holiday season” can be very difficult for many to endure as we start celebrations before the Winter Solstice. At this point the Oak King, and all light, is dead and we must retreat to the Holly King’s realm, underworld, to be reborn. How can a corpse decompose when someone is pumping embalming fluid into you during this time?
Winter Solstice (December 21st): the rebirth of the Sun or the Oak King. On this day the light is reborn and we celebrate the renewal of the light of the year. Oops! Are we not forgetting someone? Why do we deck the halls with boughs of Holly? This day is the Holly King’s day – the Dark Lord reigns. He is the god of transformation and one who brings us to birth new ways. Why do you think we make “New Year’s Resolutions”? We want to shed our old ways and give way to the new! The Christians celebrate the birth of the Son who in more ancient times was the Sun or Son (Mithras, the Sun God, son of the good god, Ahuru-Mazda) as it was the same concept. This is a discussion on its own but nevertheless it is the same concept. Astrologically, this time is ruled by Saturn. Saturn rules Capricorn which is the sign that starts at the Winter solstice and where celebrations with food, gift exchanges happened during the Roman celebration of Saturnalia. The masters would serve the servants in a celebration of role reversals. Nevertheless, this was a celebration of abundance and renewal.
Imbolc (Feb 2nd): This day has been secularised into “Groundhog Day” when the groundhog tells us when winter ends. Originally, it was the day of the Goddess Brigit, later Christianised into St. Brigit. This a time when Darkness still rules but the light is coming into power and it is celebrated by the celebration of candles which was Christianised into Candlemas. The darkness or the Holly King still rules but the Oak King or light is growing in power. In Pagan, celebrations the sacramental wine is replaced with honey and milk.
As one can simply see, the struggle of the Oak and Holly King is that light and dark and the life and death is more solar than some arbitrary day. Many Christian holidays have come to be associated with more ancient Pagan holidays such as St. Brigit’s Day and St. John the Baptist day (Summer Solstice) but in the end they are no more than solar celebrations.
Light-Dark not Good-Evil
One concept that must be kept in mind is that the struggle of light versus dark is not one of good versus evil. In the Pagan mindset, the struggle of light and dark is of one of birth and regeneration. Like the harvest, one thing that grows will die and what dies will grow again. It is about how we choose to grow and die and how we choose to be reborn. As the sun is reborn on the Winter Solstice day, we too are reborn. As the darkness reborn on the Summer Solstice day, we too start to die on that day. It is cycle that we live from year to year. Death is not bad – it is just an opportunity to be reborn. Do we die forever? No! We are reborn with the light, in one way or another.