Signs and Symbols of the Christmas Festival
Signs and Symbols of the Christmas Festival
Berlin, December 17, 1906
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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. (Note 4) 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.
The square is the symbol of the
fourfold nature of man: physical body, ether body, astral body and ego.
The triangle is the symbol of
the higher man: Spirit Self, Life Spirit and Spirit Man.
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. 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.
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.
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.
From Goethe's Faust,
translated by George Madison Priest; copyright by, and reprinted here with
permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
Translated by Henry B. Monges.
By Rudolf Steiner.
This 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.
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