THE HOLLY KING
From the Celtic tradition, we get a pair of ancient pagan images who fight
for supremacy at Yule. The Holly King and the Oak King are probably constructs
of the Druids to whom these two trees were highly sacred. The Oak King (king of
the waxing year) kills the Holly King (king of the waning year) at Yule. The Oak
King then reigns until Midsummer when the two battle again, this time with the
Holly King as the victor. The Holly King, who has evolved into the present day
Santa Claus, wears red, dons a sprig of holly in his hat, and drives a team of
eight (total number of solar sabbats) deer, an animal sacred to the Celtic Gods.
Holly and mistletoe are traditional to the season through commemoration of the
battle. The holly was hung in honor of the Holly King; the mistletoe (which
grows high in the branches of oak trees) in honor of the Oak King.
The Oak King and Holly King are mortal enemies at Midsummer and Yule, but
they are two sides of a whole, and neither could exist without the other.
Today's Santa is a folk figure with multicultural roots. He embodies
characteristics of Saturn (Roman agricultural god), Cronos (Greek god, also
known as Father Time), the Holly King (Celtic god of the dying year), Father
Ice/Grandfather Frost (Russian winter god), Odin/Wotan (Scandinavian/Teutonic
All-Father who rides the sky on an eight-legged horse), Frey (Norse fertility
god), the Tomte (a Norse Land Spirit known for giving gifts to children at this
time of year), and Thor (Norse sky god who rides the sky in a chariot drawn by
goats). Julbock or Julbukk, the Yule goat, from Sweden and Norway, had his
beginnings as carrier for the god Thor. Now he carries the Yule elf when he
makes his rounds to deliver presents and receive his offering of porridge.
When Early Christians co-opted the Yule holiday, they replaced the ancient
Holly King with religious figures like St. Nicholas, who was said to live in
Myra (Turkey) in about 300 A.D. Born an only child of a wealthy family, he was
orphaned at an early age when both parents died of the plague. He grew up in a
monastery and at the age of 17 became one of the youngest priests ever. Many
stories are told of his generosity as he gave his wealth away in the form of
gifts to those in need, especially children. Legends tell of him either dropping
bags of gold down chimneys or throwing the bags through the windows where they
landed in the stockings hung from the fireplace to dry. Some years later
Nicholas became a bishop--hence the bishop's hat or miter, long flowing gown,
white beard and red cape.
When the Reformation took place, the new Protestants no longer desired St.
Nicholas as their gift-giver as he was too closely tied to the Catholic Church.
Therefore, each country or region developed their own gift-giver. In France he
was known as Pare Noel. In England he was Father Christmas (always depicted with
sprigs of holly, ivy, or mistletoe). Germany knew him as Weihnachtsmann
(Christmas man). When the communists took over in Russia and outlawed
Christianity, the Russians began to call him Grandfather Frost, who wore blue
instead of the traditional red. To the Dutch, he was Sinterklaas (which
eventually was mispronounced in America and became Santa Claus). La Befana, a
kindly witch, rides a broomstick down the chimney to deliver toys into the
stockings of Italian children. These Santas were arrayed in every color of the
rainbow--sometimes even in black. But they all had long white beards and carried
gifts for the children.
All of these Santas, however, never stray far from his earliest beginnings as
god of the waning year. As witches, we reclaim Santa's Pagan heritage.
Santa's reindeer most probably evolved from Herne, the Celtic Horned God.
Eight reindeer pull Santa's sleigh, representative of the eight solar sabbats.
In British lore, the stag is one of the five oldest and wisest animals in the
world, embodying dignity, power and integrity. From their late Autumn dramatic
rutting displays, stags represented strength, sexuality and fertility. As
evidenced by multiple prehistoric excavations of stag antler ritual costumes,
the wearing of stag antlers in folk dance recreated the sacred male shaman
figure called Lord of the Wild Hunt, Cernunnos, or Herne the Hunter, among
others--he who travels between worlds, escorting animal spirits to the afterlife
and sparking wisdom and fertility in this world. Likewise, the stag's branching
antlers echo the growth of vegetation. In America, the stag represents male
ideals: the ability to "walk one's talk," and powerfully, peacefully blend
stewardship and care of the tribe with sexual and spiritual integrity.
In Northern European myth, the Mother Goddess lives in a cave, gives birth to
the sun child, and can shape shift into a white hind, or doe. Therefore, the
white hind was magical, to be protected and never hunted. In myth, graceful
running women of the forest--who were actually magical white hinds--brought
instant old age or death to hunters who chased them.
To the Celts, all deer were especially symbolic of nurturing, gentle and
loving femaleness. White deer hide was used to make tribal women's clothing.
White deer called "faery cattle" were commonly believed to offer milk to
fairies. In Britain amongst the Druids, some men experienced life-transforming
epiphanies from spiritual visions or visitations by white hinds, balancing and
healing their inner feminine energy. In Europe white hinds truly exist, and are
many shades of warm white cream-colors, with pale lashes--otherworldly in their
peaceful and modest behavior. To many Native American tribes, deer are models of
the graceful and patient mother who exhibits unconditional love and healthy,
integrated female energy.
The Wheel of the Year is often symbolized by the wreath. Its circle has no
beginning and no end, illustrating that everything in its time comes back to its
point of origin and travels onward, over and over again. Scandinavians began the
tradition of hanging the wreath at Yule, the beginning of their new year, to
commemorate new beginnings in the cycle of life. Today in rural Germany, a giant
wreath, known as St. Catherine's Wheel, is a holdover from another pagan custom
which involved sympathetic magick to lure the sun's warmth back to the earth. A
giant four-spoked wheel with an effigy of a person bound to it, is lighted on
fire and rolled down a hill. (The effigy probably hearkens back to a time when
human sacrifices were made in plea to the sun.) In some traditions, Yule was a
more important holiday for honoring the Sun God than Midsummer. In Winter,
Mother Earth was cold and barren without the fertilizing power of Father
Mistletoe was also known as the golden bough and was held sacred by both the
Celtic Druids and the Norse. Mistletoe was used by the Druid priesthood in a
very special ceremony held around this time...five days after the New Moon
following winter solstice, to be precise. The Druid priests would cut mistletoe
from a holy oak tree with a golden sickle. The branches had to be caught before
they touched the ground.
Celts believed this parasitic plant held the soul of the host tree. The
priest then divided the branches into many sprigs and distributed them to the
people, who hung them over doorways as protection against thunder, lightning and
other evils. The folklore, and the magical powers of this plant, blossomed over
the centuries A sprig placed in a baby's cradle would protect the child from
faeries. Giving a sprig to the first cow calving after New Year would protect
the entire herd. Now for the kissing part. Although many sources say that
kissing under the mistletoe is a purely English custom, there's another, more
charming explanation for its origin that extends back into Norse mythology. It's
the story of a loving, if overprotective, mother.
The Norse god Balder was the best loved of all the gods. His mother was
Frigga, goddess of love and beauty. She loved her son so much that she wanted to
make sure no harm would come to him. So she went through the world, securing
promises from everything that sprang from the four elements--fire, water, air,
and earth--that they would not harm her beloved Balder.
Leave it to Loki, a sly, trickster spirit, to find the loophole. The loophole
was mistletoe. He made an arrow from its wood. To make the prank even nastier,
he took the arrow to Hoder, Balder's brother, who was blind. Guiding Holder's
hand, Loki directed the arrow at Balder's heart, and he fell dead.
Frigga's tears became the mistletoe's white berries. In the version of the
story with a happy ending, Balder is restored to life, and Frigga is so grateful
that she reverses the reputation of the offending plant--making it a symbol of
love and promising to bestow a kiss upon anyone who passes under it.
Balder is sometimes seen as the sacrificed and resurrected god, who is
restored to his people after the Battle of Ragnarok.
Winter was a time of death and stagnation in the eyes of early humans. The
earth was barren and unproductive, shelter was drafty, disease was common, and
food was scarce. Little wonder they did all in their power to assure the Sun's
return each year. During the festivals of the waning year, fire became a form of
sympathetic magick to entice the Sun back to the earth. Bonfires were lit;
Flaming wheels rolled down hillsides; Burning candles were placed in windows.
Candles were later placed in the boughs of evergreen trees, later evolving into
lights on our holiday trees.
Honor the new solar year with light. Do a Solstice Eve ritual in which you
meditate in darkness and then welcome the birth of the sun by lighting candles
and singing chants and Pagan carols. If you have an indoor fireplace or an
outdoor fire circle, burn an oak log as a Yule log and save a bit to start next
year's fire. Decorate the inside and/or outside of your home with electric
colored lights. Because of the popularity of five pointed stars as holiday
symbols, this is a good time to display a pentagram of blue or white