(This Winter Solstice story first appeared on this blog on December 21, 2017.)
It is a night in prehistory, someplace in the area that will one day be called Britain. Those in this tiny village of mud thatched roundhouses live a precarious, hand-to-mouth existence, eking a few precious crops from the soil each summer season, hunting and fishing, gathering from the wild. They pray each summer for a bountiful harvest, that they might have enough to survive the coming winter.
The nights have been growing colder for many weeks now, but, what is even more frightening, they have been growing longer. The elders in the village say that this has happened before; many times, in fact. The sun rises later and later, sets earlier and earlier, and each successive night lasts longer. The elders have grown wise merely by the act of surviving so many repetitions of this occurrence. And so they choose the largest, hardest, longest-burning oak logs and set them aside for what they know is coming: the Dark Night. The Long Night. The fearful night when Darkness overpowers the Light. They set that hardy wood aside for the night when everyone in this little village will huddle together, seeking warmth, and desperately hoping that this time, this time once more, the Darkness will not win. The unbearable, long night will end, must end, and the morning sun be reborn.
And as they huddle together about the bright light of that long-burning log, stories are told. Legends are born. For the light of the log is like passion, like the heat of battle, and so surely it must represent a battle – the battle of Light and Darkness. Perhaps it is two great Kings who are battling , or even Gods (for there must always be kings and gods – someone, after all, must be in charge of all this.) Perhaps one of these God Kings lives within the oak log itself, the oak twined with ivy, ivy which remains green even in winter, and with mistletoe, that mystic plant which appears growing high in the trees without reason or explanation. This Oak King must be battling the Holly King, whose sharp, thorny green plant bears red berries like blood.
And what of the sun, the golden sun, the longed-for sun? Drawing perhaps on some misty memory of an ancient sun-scorched land known only from legend, they recall the myth of Nuit, starry Goddess of the Night Sky, from whose body each morning the sun was reborn. Surely a God King must have a wife: a wife pregnant, laboring, struggling to give birth to the Sun. A family — a family and history remembered even by those who have no memories of that land. (It will be centuries yet before another small family will fly into Egypt, that ancient land of the starry Goddess…)
And so at sundown, the Great Battle commences: the battle for the very Earth itself. If the Holly King wins, the laboring Goddess will perish in childbirth, the sun never be reborn, and the Earth and all its inhabitants will die.
But the Holly King never wins. Time after time, battle after battle, he is slain, dying as he knows he must die: King, and God, and Sacrifice. Darkness never conquers the Light. And at the moment of dawn, the Queen of Heaven once again gives birth to the Child who is the Light.
And so it is that all the ancient legends blend, and twine, and intermingle, into this singular neverending Truth: that though the Darkness may gain sometimes hours, sometimes days, sometimes minutes, its reign upon the Earth and her peoples must always, eventually fade; that sacrifice and courage and wisdom enable one to battle through the long and fearful night; that the pain and toil of women who carry and labor the children of the Earth into existence allows us always to persist and continue.
And now in closing this ancient but always-new tale, I send (as Fra Giovanni once wrote in his Christmas Greeting, quoting the great Song of Solomon), “…the hope that for you, now and forever, the day breaks, and the shadows flee away.”