Christmas and Its Esoteric Significance

Based on an article in the Theosophical Encyclopedia

Christmas is a Christian festival, presently celebrated on December 25 and commemorating the birth of Jesus, called Christ. It is the most popular festival in the Christian calendar, and has become increasingly elaborated over the years with customs, such as decorating a fir tree, drawn from pagan sources. In addition, in has absorbed some later Christian practices, such as erecting a crèche (first done by St. Francis and his followers)

More recent secular practices include exchanging presents, often claimed to come from "Santa Claus" (a figure first popularized in New York in the nineteenth century, the name being a modification of Dutch Sinterklaas, a popular alteration of Sint Nikolass, that is, Saint Nicholas, a fourth-century bishop who, according to legend, saved three girls from prostitution by throwing three bags of gold into their window at night). Another secular addition is exchanging greeting cards, a practice begun around 1846. Although the increasing commercialism associated with such practices is often decried, they can and often do serve a useful purpose, as Charles W. Leadbeater describes in The Inner Side of Christian Festivals (1973, pp. 41-2).


The exact date of Jesus's birth is a matter of debate, but it is generally acknowledged that it was not December 25. That date was adopted most likely in the fourth century CE (Christian or Common Era). That date was chosen, according to Gibbon (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire), by early Christians because it coincided with the culmination of the Roman festival of Brumalia, celebrating the birth of Bacchus (Dionysus). Bruma is an ancient Latin name for the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, which the Julian calendar fixed on December 25. It was also the traditional date of the birth of Mithra, the Invincible Sun. In either case, it enabled Christians to avoid attracting unwanted attention to themselves and consequently persecution. Not all early Christian communities adopted that date; one historian is quoted by Annie Besant (Esoteric Christianity, p. 110) as re¬porting that "one hundred and thirty-six different dates" were "fixed on by different Christian sects". Leadbeater suggests that the actual date may have been "sometime in the spring" (Inner Side, p. 9).

Whatever the reason for choosing December 25, that date is esoterically appropriate. For one thing, associating the birth of a world teacher with the rebirth of the Sun (symbolic of our spiritual Self) relates Christianity to the esoteric doctrine of the descent of the second person of the Trinity into matter to begin the long evolutionary journey of unfolding consciousness in ever more sophisticated forms. It is also claimed by some psychics, such as Dora van Gelder [Kunz] (The Christmas of the Angels) that there is a special outpouring of energy upon the world at this time.

Leadbeater further states that the story of wise men being guided to the birthplace by a star is symbolic of an event in the expansion of consciousness called the First Initiation, when humans begin to develop their inherent spiritual powers. It is said that a star appears in the psychic realm over the initiate's head at that time. The Magi may represent either the acknowledgment of the new initiate by other initiates or, considering the traditional gifts of the Magi, the purification of the vehicles of the initiate's personal consciousness: myrrh for physical, frankincense for emotional, gold for mental. Many people experience Christmas as a greater feeling of brotherhood, peace, and love (Leadbeater, Inner Side, pp. 27-32).

Sir James George Frazer, in his Golden Bough, suggests that Christmas was borrowed directly from Mithraism and points out that many pagan cultures in the northern hemisphere celebrated festivals at this time of year. It was close to the longest night of the year, and for agrarian societies the approaching lengthening of daylight was important for growing crops, thus for sustaining life. Various tribes then engaged in rituals to ensure fecundity. The association of the rebirth of the sun with the astrological sign of Capricorn at that time of year reinforces the association with fecundity.

The traditional Christmas story of the Nativity derives mostly from Matthew's Gospel; only Luke makes any other mention of it, adding some extra events, such as the Magnificat, Mary’s song about her soul praising the Lord. Because the account in Matthew is very dramatic, one would expect the other Gospels to have included it, especially the slaughter of all new-born Jewish males. Since no contemporary historian, such as Josephus, mentions that event, it must be of esoteric, not historical, significance. A possible interpretation is that Herod represents our habitual consciousness, which seeks to retain its control over the expanded consciousness of the initiate by trying to destroy the new spiritual influences.

According to some Theosophical writers, the historical Jesus was born by the normal means of conception about 105 years BCE (before the Common Era). His parents, poor, but well-born and spiritually developed, belonged to one of the mystery schools of the time. His Jewish name would have been Jeshua, later Romanized as Jesus. A somewhat different account of his birth is given in Talmudic sources, especially the medieval Toledot Yeshu, quoted as historically accurate by H. P. Blavatsky in her various writings, although seriously questioned by some noted scholars. This account is also repeated by G. R. S. Mead in his book Did Jesus Live 100 B.C.? (1903). HPB gives Jesus' name variously as Jehoshua ben Pandira (CW 8:189, 204, 380) or Jeshu ben-Panthera (CW 4:361), his birthplace as Lud or Lydda (CW 8:189), his mother's name as "Stada (alias Miriam)," and his father's name as Panthera, "a Roman soldier" (CW 4:362). Hence, she states, he "was not of pure Jewish blood, and thus recognized no Jehovah" (SD 1:578). HPB states that he lived from 120 to 70 BCE (CW 4:362) and was a disciple of Rabbi Jehoshua ben Perahiah, his granduncle and fifth president of the Jewish Sanhedrin after Ezra, with whom he fled to Alexandria, Egypt, during the persecution of Jews under Alexander Janneaus (the Maccabean King 106-79 BCE). She adds that it was there that Jesus was initiated into the mystery school which caused him to be charged with "heresy and sorcery" upon his return to Palestine (CW 4:362), stoned to death (CW 8:189), and his body hung upon a tree outside the city of Lud (CW 4:362).

There are, then, inconsistencies both within and between the two main Theosophical accounts of the birth and life of Jesus. But however one attempts to reconcile them, it is evident that both the historical account and the esoteric interpretation of the Biblical story of Christmas in Theosophical writings, are at considerable variance with orthodox Christian theology. And whatever the actual facts may have been, they do not minimize the importance of that story both as wonderfully inspiring, as full of rich symbolism, and as a model for our own spiritual development, the awakening to the power of universal love in our hearts.

 

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