Theosophy

The Christmas Story

G. A. Barborka – USA

Introduction by S. T. Adelante

The Theosophist Geoffrey Avery Barborka (1897-1982) was a deep student of H. P. Blavatsky’s life, work, and teachings. Probably his best-known books are The Divine Plan (an in-depth commentary on The Secret Doctrine), H. P. Blavatsky, Tibet and Tulku, and The Mahatmas and Their Letters.

Other books from his hand are The Peopling of the Earth, The Story of Human Evolution, Secret Doctrine Questions and Answers (compiled from the bi-monthly periodical the Canadian Theosophist), and A Glossary of Sanskrit Terms. All of these books are a must for inquirers and students who want to learn more about H.P.B., the Mahatmas, and Theosophy.

Geoffrey A. Barborka was a student of Gottfried de Purucker, of the Theosophical Society – Pasadena. He and his wife eventually settled in Ojai, California, where he conducted classes on The Secret Doctrine at the Krotona School. In 1970 he delivered the Blavatsky Lecture entitled H. P. Blavatsky, the Light-Bringer.

It is said that Barborka was so full of Theosophy that it was virtually impossible to talk with him about any other subject. However, he made serious attempts to develop himself as a violinist. The story goes that sometimes, after he had conducted a class on one of his favorite Theosophical subjects during the day, he would treat his students to a violin recital in the evening. His students, after a hard day of plowing through the mysteries of H.P.B.’s writings, did not always find this treat easy to cope with. Apparently Barborka’s skill as a violinist did not match his ability as a teacher and writer. Here follows an excerpt from a lesser known work of his: The Christmas Story.

Closely connected with the philosophical concept of Christmas, if not actually forming part of it, is the phase identified with the symbols and customs of the season. One of the best loved customs is that of using decorations, whether in the home and its environs, or in the church. This is well expressed in the lively Christmas carol “Deck the Halls.” It is one of the favorites:

Deck the halls with boughs of holly
Fa la la la la la la la la.
’Tis the season to be jolly,
Fa la la la la la la la la.
Don we now our gay apparel,
Fa la la la la la la la la.
Troll the ancient Yuletide carol,
Fa la la la la la la la la.

The custom of decorating homes at Christmas-time in Britain may be traced back to the Saxon era, when the holly, ivy, and bay were used for this purpose during the winter solstice period. But even in pre-Saxon times, the Druids habitually gathered the mistletoe with great ceremony. Tradition has it that a golden knife was used for cutting, and then sprigs would be hung in the homes.

In ancient Rome, during the festivities of the Saturnalia (comparable to Christmas time), the temples were decorated with green boughs and flowers. In ancient Greece the well-known Anthesteria, or Flower Festival, was regularly observed.

At present, predominant in North America, along with lavish outdoor decorations in metropolitan areas, is the Christmas tree. So much attention is bestowed upon its trimming, upon displaying lights of all colors and sizes, illumined by electricity in gorgeous fashion and vying with tinseled ornaments of multitudinous varieties, shapes, and patterns, that the original philosophical concept is overshadowed by the massiveness of the decor.
The first known mention of a Christmas tree is attributed to Boniface, an English missionary who went to Germany in the eighth century. Of him it is related that upon seeing an oak tree laden with offerings to Odin, he summarily replaced the oak with a fir tree, which he adorned in tribute to the Christ child.

In Germany, tradition has it that Luther instituted the lighted candles on the Christmas tree. However, in some mid-European lands, a single lighted candle on the tree was used for the purpose of lighting the way for the entrance of the Christ child.

Whether or not the Christmas tree originated in Germanic or Scandinavian lands is difficult to determine. Very likely it was a custom in pre-Christian times to use the tree during the winter solstice in remembrance of Yggdrasil, the ancient Norse World Ash Tree. This ash was regarded as the tree of the universe, of time, and of life. It was described as thriving by means of three roots, the first and deepest extending down into the Underworld, termed Helheim, the land of the dead. In this realm was situated Hvergelmer, the well in which Nidhögg, the World Dragon, or Serpent, had his home and from which he sallied forth to gnaw at the roots of the Yggdrasil. Hvergelmer was also regarded as a roaring cauldron wherein the wicked were doomed to destruction.

The second of the three roots of the Yggdrasil was said to reach to Jotunheim, the land of the Hrimthurses, or Frost Giants, while the third extended to Asgard, the home of the gods. The stem upheld Midgard, the Earth, home of human beings, while its branches overhung Midgard and reached up even above the heaven world, Valhalla.

The World Ash Tree was kept fresh and green by means of the care given it by the Norns, three sister goddesses, named Urd, Verdandi, and Skuld—signifying the past, the present, and the future. The Norns sprinkled Yggdrasil daily from the Fountain of Urd.

The ancient Babylonians had their Tree of Life, or World Tree. Like the ancient Norse World Ash, its roots penetrated into the lower realms, the Underworld; its trunk was on the earth and its upper boughs ascended into Zikum, the highest heaven, abode of Damkina, the mother of Tammuz, the Savior of the world.
In ancient Persia the sacred world tree was named the Gogard.

In ancient India, the Asvattha, or sacred world-tree known as the pippala, or the Ficus religiosa, is described in the Bhagavad Gita:

“Men say that the Asvattha, the eternal sacred tree, grows with its roots above and its branches below, and the leaves of which are the Vedas; he who knows this knows the Vedas. Its branches growing out of the three qualities with the objects of sense as the lesser shoots, spread forth, some above and some below; and those roots which ramify below in the regions of mankind are the connecting bonds of action. Its form is not thus understood by men; it has no beginning, nor can its present constitution be understood, nor has it any end. . . . it is the Primeval Spirit from which floweth the never-ending stream of conditioned existence.” (ch. 15, W. Q. Judge’s recension)

Such is the Asvattha, verily the World Tree, symbolic of the vital structure of the universe and of the cosmic hierarchies, with which the physical worlds are inextricably interlinked. The roots of the World Tree are depicted as taking rise in the superior realms, because the manifested aspect of the Tree is visible and it flourishes in the physical world, whereas the unseen roots are nourished from the Source from which the physical world in turn originates. The three qualities referred to are those with which men’s actions are colored: the qualities of sattva, rajas, and tamas—respectively goodness, activity, and slothfulness.

The Significance of Christmas Symbols

Thus the tree displayed at Christmas time may well stand as a representative of the World Tree of whatever land desired, the Tree which flourishes from dawn to dusk of a Great Age—the age of the Earth’s existence. The globes and stars which adorn the Christmas tree are symbolic of the suns and worlds and galaxies which come into being, born from the Divine Mother, Cosmic Space. The lighted candle symbolizes the spark that, once kindled within the bosom of the aspirant, eventually burgeons forth as a flame when the mystic birth has been accomplished, when the initiate has become the Enlightened One.

The giving of gifts under the Christmas tree may well serve to symbolize the giving of oneself in service to humanity. First, the giving is demonstrated by means of loving acts of kindness, one to another. Eventually the practice may culminate in an act of sublimated compassion, expressed in the giving of oneself in service to all that lives. Such an act of compassion was indeed exemplified by Jesus the Christ and by Gautama the Buddha.

The goal of the Mysteries was to evoke the inner conviction that the achievement of such a state is possible, and then the yearning to persist in endeavor until that state was attained.

From: The Christmas Story (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1966)
Chapter 5 (pp. 35-8): “Interpretation of Christmas Symbols and Customs”

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