A Love Letter to Winter

Do you know the legend of the Holly and the Oak?

When I was young and pregnant and in graduate school, one of my courses focused solely on trees and the forests they inhabit. For hours each day the class walked through neighboring forests examining and revering nature’s impressive formations. As we traversed through the trees on one of these late August expeditions, my sagacious professor explained the ancient story, the mythical folk tale about the everlasting battle between two of nature’s fiercest kings, the Holly tree and the Oak tree.

“In many Celtic traditions,” he said, “these trees are the mighty rulers, the sacred symbols of power.” The story personifies the Holly and the Oak as winter and summer, and the two kings battle endlessly for the favor of the Earth. The Oak reigns during the warmth of midsummer. Then at the autumn equinox, the Holly gains strengths, disrupting the Oak, and overtaking the kingdom of the trees. At the peak of winter, the Holly serves as king. The battle is infinite, just as the moons wane and wax, so too do the stalwart tree kings.

Of course, the story is about much more than the two mystical tree beings dueling for power. As the trees battle for the crown, they also reveal the yin and yang within all of us. In the forest, there are two polarities struggling, two extremes pulling at Earth evermore. And yet, despite this constant straining, Earth steadies. She balances. In the currents of disorder, Earth herself harmonizes.

Here, she teaches us everything we need to know.

For so much of my life, when the New England winter blanketed my world, my instinct was to flee, to fight for the Oak and to disparage the Holly. Shifting into a new space in my life reshaped my understanding of the seasons and my outlook on the legend of the two great tree kings.

For many of us, our impulse is to light the darkness, to use twinkling candles, build a fire and adorn our homes. These are radiant symbols of the Oak, the kingdom I feel most aligned with.

These small warm actions mollify the cold and also serve as ways to sanctify the Oak tree and the hope that the sun will, indeed, rise again.

At the same time, though, there is a place for the darkness and the gifts that the Holly bestows. The stillness of winter provides us with a chance to discover the light that is already deep within us. And it is this journey of discovery that offers us a chance to tap into the resonance of the seasons.

Inviting us toward the fire, winter encourages us to gather, to connect, and to find our own flame. As Earth embraces the battle between the Oak and the Holly, she exemplifies restorative powers. The darkness of the winter is a gift, an offering to unearth an authentic light, and perhaps it is there where we find a kind of transcendent meaning in ourselves and in the cycles of the natural world around us — perhaps it is there where we raise our collective enlightenment.

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Laura Milligan is a teacher and writer. On medium, she often shares personal essays. www.lauramilliganwrites.com

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Laura Milligan

Laura Milligan is a teacher and writer. On medium, she often shares personal essays. www.lauramilliganwrites.com