Yule, the Midwinter Solstice, is celebrated on the 21st of December. It is the longest night of the year when, in the Celtic tradition, the Oak King overcomes the Holly King in their eternal battle for supremacy. The Oak King will rule for the next half year, the light grows stronger and days grow longer, until the Summer Solstice, when he will, once again, be defeated by the Holly King.
This is not a battle between good and evil though. The Oak and Holly Kings can be seen as two aspects of a single deity, the Horned God – Cernunnos, Herne the Hunter, Pan, the Green Man and others, all of whom represent nature, wild woods, animals, the underworld and death and rebirth.
On this night Gwyn Ap Nudd will ride out from Glastonbury Tor with the Cwn Annwn – white hounds with red ears – on the wild hunt, gathering up the souls of the dead. Herne the Hunter is said to lead his own wild hunt through Windsor Great Park and in Arthurian legend the Green Knight arrives at Camelot carrying a holly bob and challenges the king and his entourage to a game in which the bravest among them cuts of his head. Gawain wields the axe and when the Green Knight picks up his head and leaves, Gawain must promise to return the favour the following year. He keeps his promise, journeying to the Green Chapel to meet his fate.
In less violent, but no less otherworldy events, the solstice is marked at various ancient sites through their alignment with the sun. At Maeshowe, a Neolithic burial chamber on Orkney, the last rays of sunset shine through the entrance passage and light up the inner chamber of the cairn. The entrance passage at Newgrange, in Ireland, is lit by the rising sun while Stonehenge has sunrise and sunset alignments.
If you’re celebrating Yule with a chocolate Yule log you may not know its origins. In the deep and distant past an oak log would be placed on the fire and kept burning the whole night. In the morning, a piece of the charred wood is kept as a talisman to bring good luck, ward off witchcraft and protect against fire and lightening strikes and the ground up ashes are spread on the land to ensure its fertility and the growth of new crops.
So deck the halls with boughs of holly to honour the passing of the Holly King, sit down with a thick slice of Yule log and watch one of the many live streams of the Solstice sunrise from the comfort of your own home. But beware the wild hunt if it passes nearby!