The Winter Solstice occurs in the northern hemisphere when the Sun enters the sign of Capricorn, and this year it occurs early Saturday morning December 22, at 1:08 am EST. I’ll write more on the Solstice chart in a few days. Meanwhile, this artwork and essay about the Yuletide season comes from Joanna Colbert, artist and creator of the Gaian Tarot and whose personal blog inspired me to start my own:

We walk between the worlds during the season of Yuletide, especially during the Thirteen Nights of Solstice. If we keep our senses sharp and our imaginations lively, we may encounter many strange and wonderful beings during this liminal time instead of just that tired old department store Santa.

It has been suggested that the Twelve Days of Christmas were originally thirteen nights, dating from the dark moon nearest the Winter Solstice until the next Full Moon, a period of about thirteen days.1 The “tide” of deepest darkness started at Samhain for the Celts and in mid-October for the Nordic people with the festival of Winter-Nights. To our northern ancestors, this was a supernatural time when all sorts of otherworldly beings roamed the earth. The borders between the worlds overlapped. The dead returned to earth and the living visited the lands of the dead. Elves, trolls, ghosts, gods, goddesses . . . all were abroad during these dark days. During the Thirteen Nights of Yule, the activity of the otherworldly visitors increased. Wildness was rampant during these days when the sun had turned but the increasing light was not yet visible. The festivities and terrors lasted until the days were once more noticeably longer (usually the first week of January, after the thirteen nights).

Many of the numinous beings who escape back into our world during this time are magical Giftbringers. Our modern jolly Santa, his iconography invented by the folks at Coca-Cola in the 1930’s, is the last in a long line of Giftbringers — some male, some female; some kindly and charming, some challenging and terrifying. Two of the most beloved Giftbringers in contemporary Pagan circles are St. Lucia and the Holly King. Perhaps they will make an appearance at our parties this Yuletide season, bearing gifts of sweets and song!

Behind the figure of the Holly King stands the more ancient Green Man, the British vegetation god who symbolizes fertility and the annual death and rebirth of Nature. In some mythologies of the changing seasons, the year is divided in half and is ruled alternately by the Holly King and his twin brother the Oak King. They are also known as the Winter King (Holly) and Summer King (Oak), or the Old God and the Young God. Echoes of their battles at midsummer and midwinter are found throughout British folklore, as in the mummer plays of St. George, the ballads of Robin Hood and in the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In some stories, they battle for the hand of the Spring Maiden. The custom of “hunting the wren” on December 26th speaks to the symbolism of burying the old year. The Holly King is identified with the wren, as the Oak King is identified with the robin. In rural Britain, it was the young men of the village (their youth symbolizing the Oak King and the newborn year) who would choose the Yule tree and hunt the wren. It is said that “on Yule morning, the men would dance the Morris dances in the fields, preparing the fields for the coming of new life in the spring, keeping their crops in time with the newly waxing Sun.”2 Behind all these stories is the ancient myth of the dying and rising god.

Art historian John Williamson tells us that “the widespread motif of a ‘dying god’ or vegetation deity, who is sacrificed or sacrifices himself for the benefit of mankind, is basic to the seasonal motifs of agrarian societies.”3 At the end of the nineteenth century, Sir James Frazer published his great work The Golden Bough, in which he presented the controversial theory that in many early societies, the Sacred King of the land, who was consort to the priestess of the Mother Goddess, was slain at each of the solstices at the height of his powers of virility and potency. Because of his sacrifice, the fertility of the land was assured. Later on, as the power of the temporal kings grew, another man or even an animal — a “scapegoat” — was substituted as the sacrifice. Later still the sacrifice became symbolic rather than literal. Yet the mythic purpose of the ritual sacrifice of a “green god” to assure abundance persisted. We see it in mythology, in literature, in pre-Christian ritual and even in the metaphor of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.

The Oak King and the Holly King were regarded as two such sacred kings, one representing the waxing year and the other the waning year. At each solstice, one slays the other, though it becomes clear that the slain king is not really dead but only absent until his season comes round once more. We see this theme carried out in the famous 14th century tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

In the opening scene a fierce giant “grim, and all a-glittering green”, holding a holly cluster in one hand and armed with a huge ax, appears in King Arthur’s court one chilly Yuletide Eve. He issues a challenge to Arthur’s knights: is there any among them who will strike a blow at him, on the condition that, on the following New Year’s Day, he shall receive a stroke from the giant in return? Only Sir Gawain is brave enough, or foolish enough, to accept the challenge. He cuts off the Green Knight’s head, only to watch in horror as the giant calmly picks it up, mounts his horse, and reminds Gawain to meet him in twelve months. After a year of questing and adventures, Gawain meets the Knight again and offers his own neck to the blade. The ax swings, but only nicks his neck. By facing his fate, Sir Gawain has passed the test. He bids farewell to the Green Knight after swearing eternal friendship and allegiance, and returns home.

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