The Oak and Holly Kings have come down through the ages from the ancient hunter/gatherer cycle, and as a result many later ideas have been overlaid and entwined with their cycles, attempting to change them from an interwoven duality of waxing and waning contained within the year, to two distinct phases of the year. I feel this very strongly, and it is clear within nature`s cycle, as I will illustrate.
The Oak King is born at Yule, and starts waxing from here through Imbolc and Eostra to his peak at Beltane, after which he starts waning through Litha, Lughnasadh and Modron until his death at Samhain. He is then reborn at Yule and his cycle begins anew. The Holly King is born at Litha, and waxes through Lughnasadh, Modron and to his peak at Samhain. After Samhain he starts to wane and continues to do so through Yule, Imbolc and Eostra until his death at Beltane. He is reborn at Litha and his cycle begins anew.
Taking the conjunction of the two Kings, we see that, although at Litha the Oak King is starting to wane, he is still stronger as the Holly King has only just been born. At Lughnasadh the Holly King nominally rules, as he is starting to come into his power and the Oak King is waning, though this is in many ways a changeover point between the two. The Holly King rules Modron and his power peaks at Samhain, the time when the worlds of life and death are nearest, as is appropriate for the Holly King. As with Lughnasadh, Imbolc is ruled nominally, though in this case by the Oak King, as he starts to wax, and the Holly King wanes. This is the other cross-over point, as the first snowdrops and signs of Spring emerge from the earth. The Oak King rules Eostra, and Beltane, when he is at his peak. There is an interesting duality of the powers of life and death at Beltane, as with Samhain, for although the Holly King dies at Beltane, in doing so he returns to his underworld home, where he also is in some ways at the peak of his power. This is illustrated by Beltane being the time to cut Oak Wands, and also the time to gather Holly Flowers.
The Oak King symbolizes Healing, Gaining Power, and the Joy of Life. He is particularly associated with Nature and Her spirits. He could be said to represent the conscious mind. The Oak King is symbolized by the Red Cord, and he waxes Green, thus a Green Robe tied with a Red Cord would indicate devotion and attunement to His energies and cycle. The magickal tool of the Oak King is the Spear, or an Oak Wand. The Holly King symbolizes the mysteries of death and rebirth, and the lessons that need to be learned, even when they are hard to accept. The Holly King is associated with the Underworld and other worlds, including the Elemental worlds. In the human psyche he could be said to represent the unconscious. He is symbolized by the Black Cord, and waxes Red, thus a Red Robe tied with a Black Cord would indicate devotion and attunement to His energies and cycle. The magickal tool of the Holly King is the Chalice, representing the Primal Cauldron of Creation that is the Mother’s Womb. The Holly King bears this Chalice by the grace of his Mother, and it reminds us that everything must eventually return to the Mother. Combined with the Spear/Wand of his Oak Brother it symbolizes the Mystery of Life/Death in the Ecstasy of Sexual Union.
One point I should make at this point – although they are referred to as Kings, and I have kept this form for convenience – this is part of the nomenclature from earlier times which the tradition has retained. When I started working with these cycles, one of the first statements made when a fellow witch went into trance to channel the Oak King was: “for King I may be, but Queen also, this is for the wise”. Thus it is equally valid to say Oak and Holly Spirits (or even Queens), if not as traditional.
If one keeps in mind the cycles of the year, one should plant ideas in the unconscious (Holly King) around his birth, to take root and grow forth as the cycle turns. Likewise when the Oak King is waning, and the Holly King dominant, it is more a time for looking inward to the unconscious (underworld) and seeing what crops (ideas, positive changes) need to be planted for the next cycle.
When the Oak King is born (Yule) and starts to wax, we make our New Year’s resolutions and bring our personal energy into the conscious, physical realm of our being. His cycle of waxing is a time for doing and directing our energies outward for healing and creating positive change.