Father Christmas & The Piper at the Gates of Dawn

The Longest Night must pass before the waxing of the Light. A Blessed and Merry Yule to all my friends, family and associates. At the time of the Solstice, we have the image of the Centaur giving way to Capricorn with the Holly King, appropriately riding a Goat.

St. Nicholas magazine cover art by Canadian-born illustrator Norman Price, Christmas Number, December 1912

There are some variations on the theme of the Holly and the Oak Kings. First of all, they are two faces of the same life force, with strong natural, seasonal, agricultural and mythical significance. Form a traditional astrological point of view, the two signs of Saturn oppose both luminaries – Capricorn opposes the domicile of the Moon and Aquarius the domicile of the Sun. It is, after all, a dark time of year with the seeds of the waxing light.Beyond all other considerations, the celebrations taking place cross-culturally and around the world celebrate and exalt this seed of light.

The story of Pan and his contest with Apollo is an archetypal portrayal of Saturn vs the Sun. Pan is remembered for competing with his flute against Apollo’s lyre. Rhe contest was judged by Timolus to be inferior to Apollo’s lyre. Everyone present agreed with the judgment except for King Midas, who considered it unjust. For his insolence, Midas acquired, by the will of Apollo, the ears of an ass, which he tried, unsuccessfully, to conceal under a turban.

I’m also reminded of the passage by C.S. Lewis wherein Mr. and Mrs. Beaver tell the children that Narnia is under the spell of a malevolent despot. There is neither joy nor peace. Narnia has become a land where hope is little more than an act of folly and oppression is the order of the night,  Every day is as if it is “always winter but never Christmas.” Not long after, there is the sound of sleigh bells and it becomes apparent that the dark force is losing its strength.

Lewis is drawing from ancient sources and a theme that is ubiquitous. Christmas is, of course, a Christian festival, but The Oak King and the Holly King each rule for half the year. The evergreen holly and the sacred oak symbolically vanquish each other every six months, to rule for half the year. In reality, they are two sides of the same force. Indeed, the etymology of the word Holly in Latin means the holm-oak or evergreen oak (Quercus ilex).

These battles are usually considered to take place at the Solstices, but this seems to be the result of a misunderstanding regarding the nature of the seasons.

The battles take place at the Equinoxes – Samhain, and Beltane so that the Oak King is at his strongest during Midsummer or Litha, and the Holly King is dominant during Yule. In the Celtic tradition, Samhain is the end of Summer and the beginning of a new year. Beltane is a time of new life – a celebration of mating and regeneration. The association of Pan with Capricorn shouldn’t be missed. At his peak, the Holly King is very much like the Lord of Misrule, thriving as he does under two consecutive Saturnine signs.

Pan and Daphnis 4, the inventor of the bucolic poem. 7222: Gruppo marmoreo di Pan e Dafni. Collezione Farnese. Forse da un prototipo dello scultore rodio Eliodoro. National Archaeological Museum, Naples.

I think Lewis is also pointing to a parallel tradition in which a faun might be interpreted as a child of Pan. In the engraving above, Father Christmas or the Holly King has an unmistakably lecherous grin and he appears to be well- stocked up with wine. The goat is synonymous with lust and of course, Pan himself is half goat.  We have a mischievous  Father Christmas who could also be seen as the Lord of Misrule, found at the center of Saturnalia. The Holly Kings is also merry. The mythic elements are also decidedly chthonic and celebratory of nourishment found in barren places. Goats thrive in the most hostile environments due to their extraordinary sure-footedness and ability to find food even in the most remote places, including high elevations and extreme temperatures.

This 1835 drawing depicts “Father Christmas” being ferried by a goat.
Wikimedia Commons / University of St Andrews Library

It would be naive to interpret the Holly King as a Santa Claus, but the fact is they will forever be associated with most of the same themes that we associate with Christmas and Yule and the dozens of other festival occurring at the same time. Pan is the Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Syd Barret, a Capricorn, chose this title for Pink Floyd’s first studio lp. No doubt, he got the namer and the inspiration from ‘The Wind in the Willows’ by Kenneth Grahame; illustrated by Nancy Barnhart and  Published 1913. The Piper goes back much further, however, and he was the subject of Pre-raphaelite artists.

Pan’s is a primal music and his nature is the origin of the word ‘panic.’ But authentic music is not merely cerebral. It evokes other states of consciousness – some sweet and some dark

The Season is a celebration of Peace and Good-Will as much as it is a recognition of our most primal nature and the transmutation required to embrace both. We are all the Piper at the Gates.

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