Along the banks of the Sangamon River stand two trees: a small but strong holly and an impressive, spreading white oak.
They stand as a living reminder of a story that happened a long time ago along the banks of this very river….
A long, long time ago on the banks of the Sangamon River, there reigned two kings: The King of the Oaks and The King of the Hollies. The Oak King stood strong and dominant in an impressive coat of green. The Holly King stood less impressively, but no less strong and with one powerful advantage over the King of the Oaks….
So it came to pass that the two kings engaged in an epic struggle; a struggle for power over the forest and all of its creatures, and all of its plants, and its rivers and streams.
Even, as was soon to be revealed, for light and darkness itself.
The struggle raged on until the Holly King was mortally wounded, bringing on certain death. The Oak King, satisfied in victory, briefly let down his guard. And then in a miraculous turn of events defying death itself, the Holly King dealt a final fatal blow to the Oak King and emerged victorious.
For several cycles of the moon, the creatures of the forest noticed little difference in the reign of their new Holly King and the Oak King seemingly remained alive in its coat of green under the reign of the Holly King.
But as time went on, things grew strange and ominous.
Days grew shorter as light itself seemed to be disappearing. And the Oak King seemed to grow weaker by the day. His coat turned to red and yellow to brown and began to fall, piece by piece, to the ground, as did many other of the trees of the forest. And the creatures of the forest grew frightened.
It was then that the Great Spirit of the Sangamon spoke: “Be not afraid, for great miracles are to unfold here in the forest. Have patience.”
Days continued to grow shorter as night soon overtook day and the Oak King grew weaker. The creatures of the forest became more frightened as they knew not nor understood why this was happening.
Still as impressively covered in his shiny coat of green as ever, the Holly King was left unaffected by this frightening turn of events. And he seemed to have allies in the pines and the firs and the spruces, all seemingly left unchanged.
But the rest of the creatures grew ever more fearful under the reign of the Holly King. They became certain that he and his allies were destined to destroy daylight itself. Meanwhile, the Oak King was now stripped barren of its coat, naked and exposed.
The forest creatures deepened in their despair as they grew certain that the Oak King was dead. Hope was nearly lost. They well understood that they would not survive the inevitable coming of endless darkness, while the Holly King and the evergreens seemingly possessed the power of eternal life.
Then the Great Spirit of the Sangamon spoke to the forest creatures yet again: “Fear not, on this the longest night of the year! Be not afraid of the darkness and celebrate returning light. Celebrate with fire, burning a log of the evergreen as a symbol of the conquering power of light over darkness. Sing with joy, gladness and of the solidarity among all woodland creatures. Celebrate as if you were certain of the return of the light!”
So they did.
The Holly King laughed at the pointless frolicking of the creatures of the forest, at their fires and at their joyous singing as the long night of darkness wore on. But their frolicking and their fires and their singing re-awakened the Oak King.
Far from being vanquished, the Oak King was simply resting, awaiting his opportunity to return. And on that night, inspired by the boundless optimism of the creatures of the forest in the face of their seemingly certain demise, he reawakened, stronger than ever.
Now well-rested, the Oak King easily took the Holly King by surprise at his unexpected return. Using his own thoroughly restored great power, he conquered the Holly King, who was no longer laughing at the antics of the woodland creatures. And the reign of the Holly King was no more.
And the very next day, the light began again to conquer the darkness.
As the creatures rejoiced the victory of the Oak King, the Great Spirit of the Sangamon spoke yet again: “The return of the light comes with great promise to be sure, yet the reign of the Holly King is as meaningful as the reign of the Oak King. For it is cycles, like the cycles of the great moon in the sky, that are the way of our world. Be assured that the Holly King will rise to reign again, but fear not the darkness! Darkness brings peace, contemplation, and rest. And be assured that after darkness, there is light and after light, darkness. This should bring you great peace for there is nothing to be feared in darkness. This is the way of the world forevermore.”
So it came to pass that the light did return and in three cycles of the moon, light once again overtook darkness and the Oak King grew stronger and his impressive coat of green returned.
Like all cycles, the cycle began anew as the Holly King did rise to reign again. But this time, the forest creatures were less fearful of the rising darkness. And as years passed, the holly and all of the evergreens came to symbolize eternal life during periods of darkness.
And peace settled on the forest forevermore as they celebrated on the longest night of the year with the certainty that after the darkness, there will be light.
To this day, along the banks of the Sangamon River, under the oak and the holly, we celebrate the Winter Solstice – this year on Monday, December 21. We celebrate with candles and bonfires and lighting the Yule log, with oak and holly and its evergreen allies, with singing, with good food and good cheer.
We celebrate the certain victory of the Oak King over the reign of the Holly King, as has happened time and again throughout time itself. And we celebrate the return of the light.
Appeared as Notes from the River, Mahomet Citizen, December 17, 2015, by Scott Hays