Since tomorrow is Christmas Day, I thought I’d mention a figure from folklore who is often seen as an early inspiration for Santa Claus – the Holly King. Often, these two entities are portrayed in similar ways – the Holly King frequently appears dressed in red, wearing a sprig of holly in his tangled hair, and is sometimes depicted driving a team of eight stags – a sort of woodsy version of Santa Claus if you like. The Holly King was popularised in The White Goddess, a book-length essay on the nature of poetic myth-making by author and poet Robert Graves. In his book Graves proposed that the mythic archetype of the Holly King represented one half of the year, while the other was personified by his counterpart/adversary the Oak King. The two figures battle endlessly as the seasons turn: at Midsummer the Oak King is at the height of his strength, while the Holly King is at his weakest; the tables then later turn in the Holly King’s favour when he vanquishes the Oak King at Yule. Since Yule was the pagan midwinter festival that was the precursor to Christmas, the Holly King has forever been associated with this time of year.
The White Goddess is not the only work which mentions the seasonal tussle between the Holly King and his rival. A similar idea was suggested previously in The Golden Bough by Sir James George Frazer, who referred to a single male earth deity with dual aspects, one strong in the summer, the other in ascendance during the winter. Frazer drew parallels between the folk customs associated with May Day or the changing seasons in European and Native American cultures, amongst others, in support of this theory. In Celtic mythology the lord of summer ruled the light half of the year and was a young God, fresh and child-like in many ways. He was often depicted much like the Green Man or the Lord of the Forest, covered in greens and made to look as though the top of his head was an oak tree, hence giving rise to his alternative moniker of the Oak King. The Oak King represented life, rebirth, growth and opportunity. The lord of winter ruled the dark half of the year, when life was waning, and was often depicted as an old man with long grey hair and a beard. He also wore long red robes and had holly sprigs and other evergreens twisted into his hair. Thus he was also named the Holly King, and represented wisdom, completion, the learning of life’s lessons and a time for rest and renewal.
Interestingly, both the Holly King and the Oak King have more familiar faces in myth and legend. As well as the aforementioned Santa Claus, the Holly King is also associated with Bran the Blessed and the Green Knight. The former was a mighty Welsh King, giant in size, who sailed to Ireland to rescue his beautiful sister Branwen from the cruel Irish King Matholwch. In the ensuing battle, Bran was mortally wounded but his head, cut from his body, magically lived on, perhaps with the aid of his enchanted cauldron of rebirth. The Green Knight was a strange character in a poem penned by an unknown author in the 14th century, which was itself based on a much older folk tale. In the poem, Sir Gawain, a knight of King Arthur’s Round Table, accepts a challenge from a mysterious warrior who is completely green, from his clothes and hair to his beard and skin, save for his red eyes. The Green Knight offers to allow anyone to strike him with his axe if the challenger will take a return blow in a year and a day. Gawain accepts and beheads him in one blow, only to have the Green Knight stand up, pick up his head, and remind Gawain to meet him at the appointed time. The Oak King, meanwhile, is linked with several figures associated with nature and rebirth, such as Robin Hood, the Norse god Balder, the Greek god Dionysus and Herne the Hunter.
The Holly King, unsurprisingly, is associated with holly, a plant that was sacred to the first inhabitants of the British Isles. This may in part be because the three most prominent green plants in British native woodland during the winter were holly, ivy and mistletoe. These plants all earned respect from the early countryside dwellers and a place in their traditions. In ancient English village life there was a midwinter custom of holding singing contests between men and women, where the men sang carols praising holly (for its ‘masculine’ qualities) and disparaging ivy, while women sang songs praising the ivy (for its ‘feminine’ qualities) and disparaging holly. The resolution between the two was under the mistletoe, which gave rise to the tradition of kissing under this plant during the pagan midwinter festival of Yule. The traditional English Christmas carol, The Holly and the Ivy famously contains intermingled Christian and pagan imagery, with holly and ivy representing pagan fertility symbols. One way or another, therefore, in the form of customs, carols and the figure of Santa Claus, the Holly King, and his traditional association with this time of year, has not been forgotten entirely. It still might not hurt to spare him a thought when you’re tucking into your turkey tomorrow though…