by M. Vigrald
It is a universal truth that humans that find themselves experiencing the darkened days of winter will attempt to seek out the light. For millennia short days and long nights meant cold and death and darkness. There was little light and less food. And humans, in their simple little way, raged against the despair – they gathered around them the other humans of their clans and families, and told stories, and shared what they had, and made merry even in the knowledge that not everyone would survive through the winter. Most important were the stories, which gave rise to gods, and the gods gave meaning to the turning of the Earth and the emptiness of the cosmos.
Then humans began to change more rapidly. Fewer died in the harsh cold, and light became artificial. Clans grew and diverged; nations rose and fell. Warmth became easier to come by; gifting became obligatory and gifts came in pre-packaged sets. Most importantly, the stories changed. The gods grew old, and died. They became ghosts.
The Holly King is one such ghost, trapped in the endless cycle of fighting with the Oak King, although both are long dead to the world of humans. Each year a few humans in the masses will remember them, but it is not enough to stop them from being ghosts. They sit at the table of the gods, drinking from drinking horns and reminiscing of the old days, when they were celebrated and feared and loved. They are like two old men playing chess in the park, wishing they were still sturdy enough for the swing set.
When the shortest day of the year comes, the Holly King and Oak King will rise from their seats, move away from the table, and quietly do the duty required of them once again, although for many years now, no one has borne witness. The Holly King drives his stake of holly through the heart of the Oak King, but there is no malice in it. There is no thought of the growing power of the winter, nor care for knowledge that the warmer months will end it. For a while the Oak King will be gone – not a ghost, not a god, just a memory in the mind of his fading counterpart. He will return only when the warmth of the world is too much to ignore, and he will come to drink, and talk, and kill the Holly King in turn.
Once the solstice brought great joy to the Holly King, but now it marks the time of the year he is alone, and he dreads it. He dreads the power of the new gods that have come to replace him, fueled by gift wrapping and Black Friday sales, growing drunk on eggnog and chocolate oranges. He had not been a god in a long time. Soon, he believes, he won’t even be a ghost.