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The Holly King

24 Dec

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.

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