Oak, Holly, and Yuletide Jollies
by A. MacFeylynnd
Yule, the Winter Solstice holiday, holds a special place in my heart. I love Yule for several different reasons. To me, it means the worst of the winter darkness has passed. There is poetry in the thought that light is reborn in the midst of darkness.
Candles are used during this celebration as symbols of the Sun’s light and of the new year. Electric lights only became popular in the early 20th century as a substitute for candles. You will see the theme of the returning light in the way Christians hang Christmas lights and put a star at the top of their trees. Decorating the tree with light is believed to have originated in Germany and Scandinavia. Families would bring a “live” tree into the home so the wood spirits would have a warm place to live during the cold winter months. Bells were hung on the limbs of the tree so you could “hear” when a spirit was present, food and treats were left on the branches so the spirit could eat, and a five-pointed star — the pentagram — was placed at the top of the tree.
The German Martin Luther is credited as the first person to decorate his tree with candles. After seeing how beautiful the stars were at night, he wanted to recreate the image for his children.
“Christmas” trees were introduced to the court of Queen Victoria by her husband, Prince Albert. Although it was the custom to decorate live evergreen trees in honor of the Gods, our modern practice of cutting down a tree to bring indoors is a blasphemous desecration of the original concept. The evergreen is one of few plants to remain green even in winter and it is a symbol of life during the season of death. Decorating these trees and branches is a way of celebrating life. They are adorned with lights to encourage and honor the Sun, tinsel to encourage the melting of the snow, and the fruits of the harvest to give thanks and to ensure a bounty for the next planting season.
The low point on the “Wheel of the Year,” Yule is associated with the birth of the Divine King, the Sun god. Although he is still young and weak, the days are getting longer as his light begins to grow. Earth is in darkness and the Goddess is sleeping (some say). The God who died at the harvest festival of Lammas — cut down with the grain — has spent this time traveling in the underworld and is now reborn. And that is what I find beautiful — that when things are at their darkest, light will return to the world.
Which brings us to the battle between the Oak King, representing the waxing year, and the Holly King, who represents the waning year. The Oak King, The Child of Promise, comes from the union, the love and the creative forces of the God and Goddess and is considered to be the creative principle of the universe — the mighty one who conquers darkness and brings light to the world. He is virile, fertile and a creative force who plants seeds that will bring new life, thus ensuring its continuation. He is the lord of nature and of the forest and he reminds us of our connection to every living thing.
The Holly King, the God of death and the underworld, is he who conquers light and brings rest and rebirth to the world. He is the other half of the eternal struggle between dark and light (not good and evil). He is the God who gathers souls to him to help prepare them for rebirth, even as he dies and is reborn. He is a healer who can comfort us in times of sorrow and loss because he has walked that path before us. He is a god of judgment, retribution and balance, the keeper of the laws.
At Midsummer, as the year begins its turn toward the dark again, Holly is victorious, but at Midwinter, the Oak King defeats the forces of darkness, revealing himself as a vegetation god who must die each year so that life can be renewed.
Decorated trees, lights, wreaths on the door — these are symbols of the season. Many of these symbols originated as many as 5,000 years ago. They represent reasons for celebration in the Christmas tradition and the earlier pagan rites: rebirth and everlasting life told in the stories of the birth, death and resurrection of Hercules, Dionysus, Mithra, Horus, Jesus, Arthur and many others.
Holly and ivy are also Yule symbols. Their origins are ancient. Romans used holly during the Winter Solstice, known to them as the Saturnalia. Gifts of holly were exchanged. Holly was believed to ward off lightning and evil spirits. It was also seen as a symbol of the masculine, ivy the symbol of the feminine. The custom of decorating the doorway with the two plants intertwined represented a symbolic union of the two halves of divinity.
Celtic people believed that mistletoe was a strong charm against lightning, thunder and evil. Druids harvested the plant from sacred oak trees five days after the New Moon following the Winter Solstice. Norse people also considered the plant sacred. Warriors who met under the mistletoe would not fight, but maintained a truce until the next day. Other cultures considered mistletoe to be aphrodisiac, thus came the custom of “kissing under the mistletoe.”
Giving gifts at Yule is another old symbol. Saturnalia in Rome was celebrated as the beginning of the New Year and presents were given to represent good luck and prosperity.
The tradition of Christmas gift-giving is a mystery. Many believe the ritual to have descended from the ancient Roman Saturnalia festival. Saturnalia (named for Saturn, the Roman God of sowing) was observed from roughly December 17 through December 25. Its purpose? To see out the old year and safeguard the health of the crops sown in winter. For the populace of Rome, it was also a time of feasting and gift-giving. The citizens exchanged “strenae” — boughs of laurel and evergreen that brought good luck — and the children received “sigillaria,” small clay dolls which were purchased at a special fair held during the week of Saturnalia. Gifts of homemade pastries and sweets would be exchanged and those of higher rank might make presents of jewelry or pieces of gold and silver.
Christian tradition equates the giving of gifts to the Magi who visited the Christ child shortly after his birth, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Savior.
And last, but not least, we have our modern Santa Claus. Santa is a combination of several figures — St. Nick from Holland, Father Christmas from England, Kris Kringle from Germany and Father Winter from Russia, among others. These figures all have pagan roots. Norse and Germanic peoples tell stories of the Yule Elf, who brings presents on the Solstice to those who leave offerings of porridge. Odin is a Norse god also identified with the character of Santa. One of his titles was Jolnir, “Lord of the Yule,” and he bears a resemblance to Santa.
You see there are many ways to celebrate Yule and many symbols of this holiday. However you celebrate, I wish you a Blessed Yule, a Happy Alban Arthan and a Merry Christmas.