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Signs and Symbols of the Christmas Festival
GA 96

III. Signs and Symbols of the Christmas Festival

17 December 1906, Berlin

The Christmas festival, which we are about to celebrate, gains new life through a deepened spiritual world view. In a spiritual sense the Christmas festival is a sun festival, and as such we shall become acquainted with it today. To begin, we shall hear that most beautiful apostrophe to the sun that Goethe puts in the mouth of Faust.

Refreshed anew life's pulses beat and waken
To greet the mild ethereal dawn of morning;
Earth, through this night thou too hast stood unshaken
And breath'st before me in thy new adorning,
Beginst to wrap me round with gladness thrilling,
A vigorous resolve in me forewarning,
Unceasing strife for life supreme instilling.—
Now lies the world revealed in twilight glimmer,
The wood resounds, a thousand voices trilling;
The vales where mist flows in and out lie dimmer,
But in the gorges sinks a light from heaven,
And boughs and twigs, refreshed, lift up their shimmer
From fragrant chasms where they slept at even;
Tint upon tint again emerges, clearing
Where trembling pearls from flower and leaf drip riven:
All round me is a Paradise appearing.

Look up!—The peaks, gigantic and supernal,
Proclaim the hour most solemn now is nearing.
They early may enjoy the light eternal
That later to us here below is wended.
Now on the alpine meadows, sloping, vernal,
A clear and lavish glory has descended
And step by step fulfils its journey's ending.
The sun steps forth!—Alas, already blinded,
I turn away, the pain my vision rending.

Thus is it ever when a hope long yearning
Has made a wish its own, supreme, transcending,
And finds Fulfilment's portals outward turning;
From those eternal deeps bursts ever higher
Too great a flame, we stand, with wonder burning.
To kindle life's fair torch we did aspire
And seas of flame—and what a flame!—embrace us!
Is it Love? Is it Hate? that twine us with their fire,
In alternating joy and pain enlace us,
So that again toward earth we turn our gazing,
Baffled, to hide in youth's fond veils our faces.

Behind me therefore let the sun be blazing!
The cataract in gorges deeply riven
I view with rapture growing and amazing.
To plunge on plunge in a thousand streams it's given,
And yet a thousand, downward to the valleys,
While foam and mist high in the air are driven.
Yet how superb above this tumult sallies
The many-colored rainbow's changeful being;
Now lost in air, now clearly drawn, it dailies,
Shedding sweet coolness round us even when fleeing!
The rainbow mirrors human aims and action.
Think, and more clearly wilt thou grasp it, seeing
Life is but light in many-hued reflection.1From Goethe's Faust, translated by George Madison Priest; copyright by, and reprinted here with permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

Goethe lets his representative of mankind speak these mighty words in the presence of the radiant, rising morning sun. But it is not this sun, awakening anew every morning, with which we have to deal in the festival we will speak about today. This sun is a being of much profounder depths, and the nature of it shall be the leitmotif of our present considerations.

We shall now hear the words that reflect the deepest meaning of the Christmas Mystery. These words have been heard by the pupils of the Mysteries of all ages before they entered the Mysteries themselves:

Behold the Sun
At midnight hour,
And build with stones
In lifeless clay.
So find in world decline
And in the night of death
Creation's new beginning
And morning's youthful strength.
Let heights above reveal
The Gods' eternal word,
May depths preserve and seal
The peaceful treasure-hoard.
In darkness living
O now create a Sun!
In substance weaving
O know the Bliss of Spirit.2Translated by Henry B. Monges.

Die Sonne schaue
um mitternächtige Stunde.
Mit Steinen baue
im leblosen Grunde.
So finde im Niedergang
und in des Todes Nacht
der Schöpfung neuen Anfang,
des Morgens junge Macht.
Die Höhen lass offenbaren
der Götter ewiges Wort;
die Tiefen sollen bewahren
den friedensvollen Hort.
Im Dunkel lebend
erschaffe eine Sonne.
Im Stoffe webend
erkenne Geistes Wonne.3By Rudolf Steiner.

Many people who today merely know the Christmas tree with its candles believe that to have a tree symbolizing Christmas is a traditional custom dating from ancient times. This, however, is not the case. On the contrary, the custom of decorating a tree at Christmas is most recent and does not date back more than a few centuries. The custom of decorating a Christmas tree is a recent phenomenon, but the celebration of Christmas is old. The festival at Christmas time was known in the most ancient Mysteries of all religions everywhere, and has always been celebrated. It is not merely an outer sun festival, but one that leads man to a divination of the sources of existence. It was celebrated annually by the highest initiates in the Mysteries at the time of year when the sun's force was weakest and bestowed least warmth upon the earth. It was also celebrated by those who were unable to participate in the entire celebration, but were permitted to experience only the outer pictorial expression of the highest Mysteries. This imagery has been preserved throughout the ages and has assumed forms in accordance with the various religious confessions. The celebration of Christmas is the festival of the Sacred Night, which, in the great Mysteries, was celebrated by those personalities who were ready to bring about the resurrection of the higher self within their inmost being. Today we would say, "Within their inmost being they gave birth to the Christ."

Only those who know nothing of the fact that, besides the chemical and physical forces, spiritual forces are active, and that, just as the chemical and physical forces have definite times in the cosmos for their action, so likewise have the spiritual forces—only such people can remain indifferent when the awakening of the Higher Self occurs. In the great Mysteries man was permitted to behold the active forces in colored radiance, in brilliant light. He was permitted to perceive the world around him filled with spiritual qualities, with spiritual beings, to behold the world of the spirit around him in which he underwent the greatest experience possible.

This moment will arrive at some time for everyone. All men will ultimately experience it, even though perhaps only after many incarnations. The moment will arrive for everyone when the Christ will rise within them and new seeing, new hearing will awaken within them.

Those who were prepared for the awakening, as were pupils of the Mysteries, were first taught what the awakening signifies in the great universe; only then was the rite of awakening performed. It took place at the time when darkness on earth is greatest, when the outer sun has reached its lowest point at Christmas time, because those who are acquainted with spiritual facts know that at that time of year, forces stream through cosmic space that are favorable to such an awakening. In his preparation, the pupil was told that the one who really wished to know should not merely know what has taken place during thousands and thousands of years on earth, but he must learn to survey the entire course of human evolution, realizing that the great festivals have their place within this, and that they must be dedicated to the contemplation of the great eternal truths. The pupils directed their thoughts toward the time when the earth had not yet become what it is today. Sun and moon did not yet exist but were both united with the earth, and the earth, sun and moon still formed one body. Man already existed at that time but he had no body; he was a spiritual being upon whom no external sunlight shone. The sunlight was within the earth itself. Its nature differed from the present sunlight, which shines upon beings and things from without. It had the quality of being able to radiate within itself and, at the same time, to radiate within the inner nature of every earthly being. Then the moment arrived when the sun separated from the earth and its light fell upon the earth from without. The sun had withdrawn from the earth and the inner being of man had become dark. This was the beginning of his evolution toward that future time when he is to find the inner light again radiating in his inner nature. Man must learn to know the things of earth by means of his outer nature. He will evolve to the time when in his inner nature the higher man, the spirit man, will glow and radiate again. From light, through darkness, to light—such is the course of the evolution of mankind.

The pupils were prepared by these teachings, which were constantly impressed upon them. Then they were led to their awakening. The moment arrived when, as chosen ones, they experienced by means of their awakened spirit organs, the spiritual light within them. This holy moment came when the outer light was weakest, on the day when the outer sun shines least. On that day the pupils were gathered together, and the inner light revealed itself to them.

Those who were still unable to participate in this celebration were able to experience at least an outer likeness of it from which they learned that for them, too, the great moment would come. "Today," they were told, "you behold only an image; later you will experience what you now see as a likeness." These were the lesser Mysteries. They showed in pictures what the neophyte was to experience later. We shall hear today of what took place in the lesser Mysteries on Christmas eve. It was the same everywhere -in the Egyptian Mysteries, the Eleusinian Mysteries, the Mysteries of the Near East, the Babylonian-Chaldaic Mysteries, as well as in the Mysteries of the Persian Mithras cult and the Indian Mysteries of Brahman. Everywhere the pupils of these Mystery Schools had the same experience at the midnight hour on the Night of Consecration.

The pupils gathered in the early evening. In quiet contemplation they had to make clear to themselves what this most important event signified. In deep silence they sat together in the darkness. By the time midnight drew near, they had been sitting in the dark room for hours. Thoughts of eternity pervaded their souls. Then, toward midnight, mysterious tones arose, resounding through the room, up welling and diminishing. The pupils who heard these tones knew that this was the music of the spheres. Then the room became dimly lit, the only light emanating from a dimly lighted disc. Those who saw this knew that this disc represented the earth. The illumined disc became darker and darker, until finally it was quite black. Simultaneously the surrounding space grew brighter. Those who saw this knew that the black sphere represented the earth. The sun, however, which ordinarily irradiates the earth was concealed; the earth could no longer see the sun. Then around the earth-disc, at the outer edge, rainbow colors formed, ring upon ring. Those who saw it knew that this was the radiant Iris. At midnight a violet-reddish circle gradually arose in place of the black earth sphere. On it a Word was written. This Word varied according to the peoples whose members were permitted to experience this Mystery. In our language the Word would be Christos. Those who saw it knew that this was the sun, which appeared to them at the midnight hour, when the world around rests in deepest darkness. The pupils were now told that what they had experienced was called, "Seeing the sun at the midnight hour."

Whoever is really initiated learns to experience the sun at the midnight hour, for in him all matter is obliterated. The sun of the spirit alone lives in his inner self and radiates over all the darkness of matter. This is the moment of highest bliss in the evolution of man, when he has the experience that he lives in the eternal light freed from darkness. Year after year, at midnight on the Night of Consecration, this moment was thus represented in the Mysteries. This image represented the fact that alongside the physical sun there is a Spiritual Sun, which, like the physical sun, is born out of darkness. In order to make this clearer to the pupils, after they had experienced the rising of the Sun, of the Christos, they were led into a cave in which there was seemingly nothing but stone—dead, lifeless matter. There they beheld stalks of grain arise from the stones as a sign of life, as a symbolical indication of the fact that from apparent death life springs forth, that from dead stone, life is born. They were told that just as the sun force, after it had seemingly died, waxes anew from this day on, so does new life forever arise out of dying life.

The same event is indicated in the Gospel of St. John in the words, "He must increase, but I must decrease." John, the herald of the coming Christ, of the Spiritual Light, whose festival day falls in the course of the year in mid-summer—John must decrease, and simultaneously with his decrease the force of the coming light waxes, increasing in strength as John decreases. In like manner the new, the coming life prepares itself in the seed that must wither and decay in order that the new plant may spring forth from it. The pupils of the Mysteries were to experience that in death life resides, that out of decaying matter the new, glorious blossoms and fruits of spring arise, that the earth teems with the forces of birth. They were to learn that at this time something happens in the inner being of the earth—the overcoming of death by life that is present in death. This was shown them in the conquering light. This they felt and experienced when they saw the light arise and shine in the darkness. They beheld in the stone cave the sprouting life arising in splendor and abundance out of the seemingly dead.

Thus, faith in life was fostered in the pupils. Thus were they led to arouse in themselves what may be called faith in man's greatest ideal. Thus they learned to look up to the highest ideal of mankind, to the time when the earth will have completed its evolution and the Light will shine forth in all mankind. The earth will then crumble to dust but the spiritual essence will remain with all men who have become radiant in their innermost nature through the spiritual Light. Earth and humanity will then awaken to a higher existence, to a new phase of existence.

When Christianity arose in the course of evolution, it bore this ideal within it in the highest sense. Man felt that within Christianity the Christos was to appear as the great Ideal of all men, that He had been born on the Night of Consecration about the time of deepest darkness as a sign that out of the darkness of matter a higher man can be born in the human soul.

In the ancient Mysteries, before men spoke of a Christos, they spoke of a Sun Hero who embodied the same ideal as is connected with the Christos in Christianity. The bearer of this ideal was called the Sun Hero. Just as the sun completes its orbit in the course of the year bringing about an increase and decrease in light, and its warmth apparently withdraws from the earth and then again radiates anew, just as it contains life in its death and lets it stream forth anew, so like wise does the Sun Hero, through the power of his spiritual life, become master over death and night and darkness.

In the Mysteries there were seven degrees of initiation. First the degree of the "Ravens," who were able to approach only as far as the portal of the temple of initiation. They became the intermediaries between the external world of material life and the inner world of spiritual life, and no longer belonged to the material nor yet to the spiritual world. These Ravens are to be found everywhere. They are always the messengers who pass to and fro between the two worlds and transmit messages. They are to be found in the Germanic sagas and myths also. The Ravens of Wotan, the Ravens who fly around the mountain of Kyffhäuser.

In the second degree the disciple was led away from the portal into the interior of the temple of initiation. There he matured until he reached the third degree, the degree of the "Warrior," who stepped before the world to proclaim the occult truths that he was permitted to experience in the interior of the temple.

The fourth degree, that of the "Lion," was attained by one whose consciousness was not merely that of an individual human being, but encompassed an entire tribe. Thus the Christ was called "the Lion of the Tribe of David." A man whose consciousness encompassed a whole nation had attained the fifth degree. He no longer had a name of his own but was designated by the name of his nation. Thus, people spoke of the "Persian," or the "Israelite." Now we can understand how it was that Nathanael, for instance, was called a "true Israelite." It was because he had reached the fifth degree of initiation.

The sixth degree was that of the "Sun Hero," and we must understand what this name signifies. We shall then realize what awe and reverence passed through the soul of the pupil of the Mysteries who knew something of a Sun Hero, and who experienced at Christmas the Birth Festival of a Sun Hero.

Everything in the cosmos takes its rhythmic course. The stars as well as the sun follow a great rhythm. Were the sun to change this rhythm but for a moment, were it to leave its orbit only for a moment, a revolution would result in the entire universe of quite unheard-of significance. Rhythm rules all nature, right up to man. Only with man does the situation change. The rhythm that rules until death throughout the course of the seasons in the forces of growth, propagation, etc., ceases with man. He is to stand in freedom, and the more highly civilized he is, the more does this rhythm decrease. Just as the light disappears at Christmas, so apparently has rhythm disappeared from the life of man and chaos prevails. Man, however, gives birth to this rhythm out of his own initiative out of his own inner nature. He must so fashion his life out of his will that it takes its course within rhythmical boundaries, steadfast and sure, like the course of the sun. Just as a change in the course of the sun is unthinkable, even so is it unthinkable that the rhythm of such a life be interrupted. The embodiment of such a life rhythm was to be found in the Sun Hero. Through the strength of the higher man born in him, he gained the power to rule the rhythm of the course of his life. This Sun Hero, this higher man, was born in the Night of Consecration.

Christ Jesus was also a Sun Hero and was conceived as such in the first centuries of Christianity. His birth festival was, therefore, placed at the time of year when, since primeval days, the birthday of the Sun Hero has been celebrated. This is also the reason for all that was linked with the life story of Christ Jesus. The Midnight Mass, which the first Christians celebrated in caves, was in memory of the Sun Festival. In this Mass an ocean of light streamed forth at midnight out of the darkness as a memory of the rising sun in the Mysteries. Christ was thus born in a cave in remembrance of the cave of rock out of which, symbolized in the growing stalks of grain, life was born. Earthly life was born out of the dead stone. So, too, out of the lowly, the Highest, Christ Jesus, was born!

The legend of the three priest-sages, the three kings, was linked with the Christ Birth Festival. They brought to the Child gold, the symbol of the wisdom-filled outer man; myrrh, the symbol of life's victory over death, and finally, frankincense, the symbol of the cosmic ether in which the spirit lives.

Thus, in the meaning of the Christmas Festival, we feel something echoing to us from the most ancient ages of mankind, and it has come down to us in the special coloring of Christianity. In its symbols we find images for the most ancient symbols of mankind. The Christmas tree with its candles is one of them. For us, it is a symbol of the Tree of Paradise, which represents all of material nature. Spiritual nature is represented by the tree in Paradise that encompassed all Knowledge, and by the Tree of Life. There is a narrative that imparts clearly the significance of the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life. Seth stood at the Gates of Paradise and begged to be allowed to enter. The Archangel guarding the portal let him pass. This is a sign for initiation.

Seth, now in Paradise, found the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge closely intertwined. The Archangel Michael, who stands in the presence of God, let him take three seeds from these intertwining trees, which, standing there as a single tree, pointed prophetically to the future of mankind. Then the whole of humanity shall have been initiated and shall have found knowledge. Only the Tree of Life will still exist and death will be no more. For the time being, however, only the initiate may take the three seeds from this Tree, the three seeds that signify the three higher members of man.

When Adam died, Seth placed these three seeds in Adam's mouth, and from them grew a flaming bush. From the wood cut from this bush, new shoots and green leaves continually burst forth. Within the flaming circle of the bush, however, was written, "I am He Who was, Who is, Who is to be." This points to the entity that passes through all incarnations, the force of evolving man repeatedly renewing himself, who descends from light into darkness and ascends from darkness into light.

The rod with which Moses performed his miracles was carved from the wood of the flaming bush. The portal of Solomon's Temple was fashioned from it. This wood was carried to the waters of the pool of Bethesda, and from it the pool derived its power.

From the same wood the Cross of Christ Jesus was fashioned, the wood of the Cross that shows us life passing into death, but which at the same time bears the power in itself to bring forth new life. The great world symbol stands before us here—life, which overcomes death. The wood of this Cross grew out of the three seeds from the Tree of Paradise.

The Rose Cross also expresses this symbol of the death of the lower nature and, springing from it, the resurrection of the higher. Goethe expressed the same thought in the words:

As long as you have not
Died and been reborn,
You are but a gloomy guest
Upon the darkened earth.

What a wondrous connection there is between the Tree of Paradise and the wood of the Cross! Even though the Cross is a symbol of Easter, it also deepens our Christmas mood. We feel in it how the Christ Idea streams toward us in new welling life on this night of Christ's Nativity. This idea is indicated in the living roses that adorn this tree.4This lecture was delivered beside a lighted Christmas tree adorned with the signs depicted here, as well as with thirty-three wax candles and fresh red roses. They tell us that the tree of the Sacred Night has not yet become the wood of the Cross, but the power to become this wood begins to arise in it. The roses that grow from the green symbolize the Eternal that grows from the Temporal.

square image

The square is the symbol of the fourfold nature of man: physical body, ether body, astral body and ego.

triangle image

The triangle is the symbol of the higher man: Spirit Self, Life Spirit and Spirit Man.

tarok image

Above the triangle is the symbol of the Tarok. Initiates of the Egyptian Mysteries knew how to read this sign. They also knew how to read the Book of Thoth, which consisted of seventy-eight cards on which were recorded all world events from beginning to end, from Alpha to Omega, and which could be read if they were joined and assembled in the right way. The Book of Thoth, or Hermes, contained in pictures the life that fades in death and again sprouts forth anew into life.

alpha image omega image

Whoever could combine the right numbers with the right pictures was able to read it. This wisdom of numbers and pictures has been taught since primeval ages. In the Middle Ages it still played an important role, but today there is little left of it.

tao image

Above the Alpha and Omega is the sign of Tao. It reminds us of the worship of God by our primeval ancestors because this worship took its origin from the work Tao. Before Europe, Asia and Africa were lands of human culture, our ancestors lived on Atlantis, which was submerged by a flood. In the Germanic sagas of Niflheim, the land of the mists, the memory of Atlantis still lives. For Atlantis was not surrounded by pure air. Its atmosphere was filled with enormous masses of mist similar to the clouds and mists in high mountains. The sun and moon were not seen clearly in the sky, but were surrounded by a rainbow, and sacred Iris. At that time man still understood the language of nature. What speaks to him today in the lapping and surging of the waves, in the whistling and rushing of the wind, in the rustling of the leaves, in the rumbling of thunder, is no longer understood by him, but at that time he could understand it. He felt something that spoke to him from everything about him. From the clouds and waters and leaves and winds the sound rang forth: Tao (the I am). Atlanteans heard it and understood it, and knew that Tao streamed through the whole world.

star image

Finally, all that permeates the cosmos is present in man and is symbolized in the pentagram at the top of the tree. The deepest meaning of the pentagram may not now be mentioned, but it is the star of mankind, of mankind developing itself. It is the star that all wise men follow as did the priest-sages in ancient ages.

It symbolizes the earth that is born on the Night of Consecration, because the most sublime light radiates from the deepest darkness. Man lives on toward a state when the light shall be born in him, when one significant saying shall be replaced by another, when it will no longer be said, “The Darkness does not comprehend the Light” but when the truth will resound into cosmic space with the words, “Darkness gives way to the Light that radiates toward us in the Star of Mankind, Darkness yields and comprehends the Light.”

This shall resound from the Christmas celebration, and the spiritual light shall radiate from it. Let us celebrate Christmas as the festival of the most lofty ideal of the Idea of Mankind, so that in our souls may rise the joyful confidence: Indeed, I, too, shall experience the birth of the higher man within myself. The birth of the Savior, the Christos, will take place in me also.

The symbols which make up the Christmas tree image