The Tree of the Waning Year
July 8 – August 4
The Holly is an evergreen tree which flowers in July, coinciding with the barley harvest; it has glossy, prickly dark-green leaves, and produces red berries that mature in the autumn and remain through winter. Native to Southern Europe, North Africa, and West Asia, it has been cultivated since ancient times, and is planted across the U.S. in mainly Atlantic, Southeastern and Pacific states. Holly divides the sexes, producing female trees with berries and male trees with barely visible pollen-flowers; it has very clean white wood–often used for veneers, inlays, and chariot-shafts. Numbered among the Seven Chieftain Trees of Old Ireland, Holly was sacred to Mars, the scarlet-faced Roman god of war. From the antique Song of the Forest Trees: “Of all trees whatsoever the critically best is Holly.”
The original tree of this month, however, was the HOLLY-OAK, also known as Holm-oak, Scarlet-oak, Prickly-oak, or Evergreen oak, which resembles the Holly but is, as Graves writes, “the evergreen twin of the ordinary Oak.” The juice of its flowers produces a scarlet dye–one reason for its being called “the bloody oak.” Another is because in Celtic tradition Holly-oak, or Holly, is the tree of the Tanist, who was heir apparent to the King–represented by the Oak, as Holly follows Oak–and was in earliest times also the King’s executioner. From this comes the Welsh myth about the Oak-knight and the Holly-knight who fought every first of May until Doomsday, as well as the Irish Romance of Gawain and the Green Knight in which the Green Knight, an immortal giant whose club is a Holly-bush, agrees with Gawain of the Oak that they shall–for the love of the same woman–behead each other at alternate “New Year’s”, which then meant Midsummer and Midwinter.
The current use of Holly as a decoration during the Christmas season probably derives originally from its sacral use in these pagan celebrations, as well as by farmers as part of the ancient Italian midwinter festival in honor of Saturn, known as the Saturnalia, celebrated Dec. 17th and 18th. The Saturnalia is described by the Oxford English Dictionary as: “a time of general unrestrained merrymaking, extending even to the slaves.” The word Holly means “holy.”
The third “cross-quarter” day, or “Witch’s Sabbath,” or Irish fire-feast, of the year is Lammas (Aug. 2, Holly 26), and was once observed in Ireland as a mourning feast for dead kinsfolk. During the Middle Ages Lammas was also observed this way in most parts of England. It began as a wake for the mythical Sun-god Lugh (identified with numerous other Sun-gods and Oak-kings) called Lugh-nasadh (“Commemoration of Lugh”), or “Lugh-mass.” In Ireland, the Teltown Games take place at Lammas, marked by trial marriages in honor of Lugh and his bride to last “for a year and a day,” and to be dissolved only by an act of divorce right where the marriage occurred. In some parts of Wales, Lammas is still a fair day.
From The Song of Amergin: “I am a spear: that roars for blood,” and Holly is the month of the spear, carried by the Tanist, who was the Celtic King’s successor; the shape of the bardic letter T (for Tinne, for Holly) was like a barbed spear. Since this is the warrior’s month, it is appropriate to the Starling (Truith) a bird whose flocks are noted for the swiftness and smoothness of their flights and for sudden pivots without an apparent signal. The warrior’s metal is Iron and its color is Dark-grey (Temen). The Biblical jewel is the Smoky Quartz, more descriptively called Yellow Cairngorm, representing another of the twin “glaring hot” months, and sacred to the tribe of Simeon–“the bloody brother whose anger is fierce”–connecting once again to “the bloody Oak” and to “the murderous month” of the Tanist “when the sun is at its fiercest.”
A Tree of Tuesday, Day of Growth, or War
Sun in Cancer the Crab, or the Cat, to July 21
Sun in Leo the Lion, July 22 – Aug 22
Letter: T for Holly or Holly-oad in Irish, Tinne
Bird: Starling (Truith)
Color: Dark-gray (Temen)
Jewel: Smoky Quartz
Numbers: (Greek) 12/ (Irish) 11