Got an email from Bridget last week and thought you'd enjoy her story of the Holly King and the Winter Solstice... See you tonight.
Snowflakes large enough for fairies to ride float leisurely through the air to rest on bare alder branches, fir boughs, and of course my head. Snow is unusual enough here on the Oregon Coast that in my excitement I rushed out the door without regard to hat or gloves, only hurriedly donning a jacket under which to shelter the camera. The deer have already come down the path. There are three sets of tracks so it must have been the doe and her two young ones, who will come to the door looking for their daily apple treats soon.
The deer will have to wait; I'm on a quest to catch the Holly King, God of the Waning Year, in a regal white robe. The end of his reign nears; at Yule, the Winter Solstice, his brother the Oak King, the Sun King, God of the waxing year, will be born and the Holly King's rule overthrown. Rebirth, growth, hope, new beginnings are poised to arrive with the Turning of the Year, but I've barely settled into the rest, inner reflection, and learning the Holly King's rule brings. I'm not sure I'm ready to let him go; at least I want to capture his image.
The holly and the ivy
When they are both full grown
Of all the trees that are in the wood
The holly bears the crown.
A song we're familiar with, but this adaptation of the chorus perhaps not:
Oh, the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The shining of the winter stars
As the longer days draw near.
The Holly King has been leading us to this point since the Summer Solstice, when he began stealing a little more light from each day. Now the days have shriveled to a bare flicker. The sun sets in the middle of the afternoon and frozen nights are endless. Yes, this is an opportunity for quiet, inner reflection but it feels more as though we've been left huddling in the dark with the outlines of skeleton trees, no flowers, and only the heartiest of birds darting thankfully to the feeders. Has the sun abandoned us to the night?
Welcome to the Winter Solstice, where the dark triumphs -- but only for a moment. This is a turning point; the Holly King's reign will end, the days will grow longer again, as the Oak King, who brings the light, is quietly born from the womb of the dark night. He's only a small spark, but we have known in our bones since always that light, no matter how tiny, means life.
And so we have magical tales of shining stars, of bright angels, of the birth of hope and new beginnings to sustain us through the fierce storms of January, yet to come. The fires we light on the hilltops, the Yule logs set ablaze in our homes are more than a ritual of ignorant people to appease the gods and bring back the sun. We string lights on our homes, our mantles, and the tree in our living room as a recognition of fire inside, the light in our hearts and as a statement of survival and the ultimate hope -- that I have inside of me the fire and the light to continue life. That my own internal light may call forth the light of the universe to bless my life, my family, my people.
In lighting the fires, in stringing the lights, we do more than stave off the darkness, even more than honor the sun. We also stand with fierce courage to say to the darkness, "You may come this far but no further!" We have given the darkness its due, we've watched it leach the light from our lives for as long as we had to; now the long night is over, we can tentatively bring our own lights back from hiding, and let the new days begin.
This Turning of the Year, the returning of the light, this most hopeful of all days, has been celebrated across cultures and millennia so, however you choose to participate, you will be part of an ancient tapestry. Whether you float old ideas and sorrows out to sea on paper mache boats with candles, make a yule wreath to honor the sacred circle of life, death and rebirth, find a Yule log and burn it in your fireplace, or join the Fairies in ringing bells on Solstice morning to welcome back the sun, remember that this is a festival of inner rebirth. No matter how dark it seems, how completely dead the world appears, nature -- including the holly and the ivy and the oak -- teaches us that there is always rebirth.