The Everlasting Battle of the Oak King and Holly King
By Alex Henderson, Curator of Living Collections, Royal Botanical Gardens.
The day that many celebrate Christmas has its origins in the deep history of ancient peoples of northern Europe. Christmas is celebrated in the middle of winter when the trees have no leaves and the world has botanically gone to sleep. Each year, we decorate with evergreen trees, branches, and winter blooming plants but people seldom ask why and what lays behind this ancient plant symbology? Understanding Christmas botany opens new perspectives on customs of times long past and reveals cultural elements from around the world which have been incorporated into today’s Christmas traditions.
The ancient peoples of Europe had a far greater connection with nature than most people in modern times. They held reverence for the sun and held an annual celebration to mark the winter solstice on December 21. It was believed that the sun stood still for twelve days so a log was lit to vanquish darkness, banish evil spirits, and bring luck for the coming year. This was known as Yuletide. During the celebration, houses were decorated with holly, ivy, mistletoe, and other plants. Many of these plants were thought to hold special powers but they were also used as a reminder of rebirth, a return to longer days, the planting of crops, and the world becoming verdant again. Yuletide became Christmastide and many pagan beliefs and rituals were absorbed by the church into Christmas celebrations. December 25 was chosen as the date for Christmas due to its proximity to the solstice.
Winter solstice celebrated the rebirth of the sun, a return to life, and the changing of the seasons. Symbolizing the changing seasons, the legend of the Oak King and Holly King represented personifications of summer and winter. They were locked in a never-ending battle for seasonal supremacy. Both Kings represented solar lightness, darkness, crop renewal, and growth. During the warm days of summer and when in full leaf, the Oak King is at the height of his strength. On the approach of winter and with the loss of the Oak King’s leaves, the Holly King regains power which peaks at the winter solstice. At this point the Oak King is reborn. As his new leaves open, the cycle perpetuates. Both are portrayed in familiar ways with the Holly King as a woodsy version of Father Christmas dressed in red with sprigs of holly in his hair. The Oak King is portrayed as a fertility god-like figure appearing as a green man or similar forest character.
The story of the Oak King and Holly King still resonates today with many celebrating the passage of seasons including summer and winter solstices. During normal pandemic-free years every December 21 in Toronto, a festival marks the return to light. This includes costumed revelers, thematic lanterns, theatrical scenarios, shadow play, and roving giant puppets some of which have botanical themes. The longest night concludes with a festival of fire and a community feast to welcome the return of the Oak King.
We may choose to accept or ignore that our familiar Christmas traditions have absorbed past ethnobotanical beliefs of winter solstice celebrations. The study of Christmas botany does however give us greater insight into how plants are intrinsic to the history and spiritual beliefs of the festive season. Ethnologically, Christmas can be described as one of the most successful examples of a mass ritual that has international, cultural, and religious importance. It has been incorporated and interpreted by people from different cultures globally and its very foundations are built on traditional plant use, knowledge, and botany. Happy Christmas, the return of the Oak King, and the impending renewal of the sun.