Normally it is around this time of year, that I begin noticing again how much I am out of touch with popular culture. Just as everyone else starts gearing up for shopping, parties and decorating, I instead start shedding, nesting and turning inwards.
Indigenous Europeans celebrated the Winter solstice for centuries as a festival of lights. Christmas lights and trees share this pagan heritage. The Oak King is victorious over the Holly King during the longest night and the Sun begins to slowly to take back its domain over the night. Light is reborn, and the wheel of the year turns toward spring.
But until the solstice, the Holly King rules. The Holly King symbolizes withdrawal, reflection and rest. Mammals especially begin their hibernation in northern latitudes and nature herself slows down and falls into a deep sleep. The birds that remain fight over scraps, while the squirrels become even more hectic in their hoarding. Any frantic activity in nature is toward picking the bones of the final harvest.
The harvest festivals are now only distant memories, and what is consumed are the bounty that cannot keep over the long winter. Windows, doorways, and all openings into home and hearth are girded to withstand winter’s storms. And the heavy blankets and clothing are brought down for inspection and repair. The work moves inward, and supplies are set aside for winter’s projects such as knitting, weaving, spinning and tool repair.
Our entire human history, our mammalian ancestry and nature itself pushes us to slow down, turn inward and reflect. And what do we do? We go mad with shopping, eating, drinking, and parties. We travel long distances to be with families yes, but we drive ourselves doggedly to buy, buy and buy as if there is no tomorrow. We consume what serves us better to be save. We buy ready made what would serve us better to create. And we put up lights all over our homes sending heat and light out, instead of conserving the energy for warming and illuminating our homes internally.
We do not turn inward until New Years, after the Oak King has reawakened. The Oak King symbolizes expansion and growth. And maybe it is appropriate to examine areas in need of growth, i.e. New Years resolutions. But the Oak King does not reach his zenith till Beltane, May 1st. So although the Oak King is victorious, we are still within the domain of the receding Holly King.
Christmas is notable for another cultural theme as well, holiday depression. More people attempt suicide during the Christmas holidays, than at any other time of year. There are many theories as to why this is so including Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD. The diminishing light of winter causes many sensitive folks to begin a descent cycle energetically just as everyone else around them begins to rev up.
What would happen if we celebrated the season in tune with the signs of nature all around us? What if we all slowed down, turned inward and fortified home and hearth? What if we as a culture moved the shopping and decorating back toward harvest time where it fits the hoarding and exhilaration of autumn, and let winter become a time of rest and reflection. Maybe folks with SAD and others who begin descending into the underworld would not feel so out of step. Maybe we all could begin to satisfy our very human needs for withdrawal. All hail the Holly King!
The legend of The Oak King and the Holly King