The Oak King and The Holly King

(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.

Gathered About the Yule Log
Gathered About the Yule Log

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.”

 

The Oak King and the Holly King

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.”

 

Families, Holidays, and Chaos

A few years ago I stumbled across Dar William’s humorous and touching holiday song, “The Christians and the Pagans”. It was a good natured glimpse into the utter chaos experienced by a  family of very dissimilar individuals, all trying to navigate their way through the minefield of a Christmas dinner without triggering nuclear meltdown.

I found it so delightful and thought-provoking that I forwarded the YouTube video link to most of my contacts. A few of them had encountered the song previously, but were glad to enjoy it again.  To others, as it had been to me, it was a revelation: a couple of laugh-out-loud verses woven into an authentic description of the bedlam relatives endure as they try to practice tolerance and caring for the sake of family at the holidays.

But, to my dismay, a couple of my contacts found the song very offensive. To say that I was bewildered at their reaction is an understatement.  This was a song about tolerance—about the triumph of love over personal differences—about the curiosity of children, as well as their inability to lie for the sake of tact (“The Emperor has no clothes!”)—about finding common ground in the midst of seeming contradictions.

Eventually it became clear to me that, for those who found the song distasteful, their rejection of it lay in the very fact that the song was, indeed, about tolerance: about a Christian family struggling to accept and love their non-Christian and unconventional relatives (it is implied, though never outright stated in the lyrics, that the young niece is in a lesbian partnership) at Christmastime. To some of my very-Christian acquaintances, this concept—that Christians would willingly welcome the company of their non-Christian relatives at Christmas—was anathema.

It is a mindset that I cannot even begin to comprehend. I glory in the traditions of other cultures, so many of which celebrate a religious or secular holiday near the winter solstice.  Soyaluna, Diwali, Christmas, Solstice, The Return of the Wandering Goddess…to me, they are all beautiful traditions, evocative of the universality of the human spirit reaching out to the Divine.  To reject loved ones because they have chosen a different faith (or even no faith at all) is, to my way of thinking, so far from the genuine practice of Christianity, as I understand it, that it boggles the mind.

I was simply stunned to learn that some of my Christian acquaintances thought that their non-Christian counterparts would be encouraged to “find Jesus” if they were cast out and treated as lepers; that they believed children should be shielded from the spiritual differences of those they encounter, instead of simply receiving an explanation as to why the family believes other faiths to be in error. I could not comprehend their feeling that families should not at least try to join together in love and caring at the holidays, no matter what their dissimilarities.

It’s always seemed to me that the surest way to draw others into one’s own belief system is to demonstrate, by the very life one lives, that it is a faith worth emulating. How, I was now forced to ask, could shunning loved ones, subjecting them to rejection and disgust and dislike—how could that in any way inspire them to accept the faith of those who cast them out?  Wouldn’t such behavior just convince them that their own spiritual path was the more noble choice?

In a question between my own belief system of that of others, I will always choose the path of learning; never relying on rumor or medieval bad press or intentional misinformation, but seeking to know the genuine principles surrounding a belief system (or even a rejection of all faith) to find the thread of commonality woven into all that is the human spirit.

But, no matter what they do or do not believe, all those who demonstrate love, acceptance, kindness, courtesy and tolerance will always be welcomed to a seat at my holiday table.