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Theosophical Encyclopedia

Christmas, Esoteric Significance of

Christmas is a Christian festival, presently celebrated on December 25th and commemorating the birth of Jesus, called Christ. It is the most popular festival in the Christian calendar, and has become increasingly secular over the years with customs, such as decorating a fir tree, drawn from pagan sources. In addition, in has absorbed some practices of early Christians, such as erecting a creche (first done by St. Francis and his followers), exchanging presents often claimed to come from a mysterious “Santa Claus” (first popularized in New York in the 19th cent., the name being a corruption of “Saint Nicholas,” a 4th cent. bishop whom legend has it saved three girls from prostitution by throwing three bags of gold into their window at night), and exchanging greeting cards (a practice begun around 1846). While one may decry the increasing commercialism involved with these accretions, 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’ birth is a matter of debate, but it is generally acknowledged that it was not on December 25th. That date was most likely adopted, according to documentary evidence, in 336 CE (or 354 CE in the Christian Almanac). The choice of that date was, according to Gibbon (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire), made by early Christians because it coincided with the Roman festival celebrating the Brumalia or Birthday of the Unconquered Sun in honor of Bacchus, and thus enabled Christians to avoid attracting unwanted attention to themselves, and very likely persecution. In the Julian calendar, December 25th was reckoned to be the actual date of the winter solstice. It has also been pointed out that the birth of Mithras and Horus was celebrated around this time, further relating it to the rebirth of the Sun god. Actually, not all early Christian communities adopted the present date; one historian, Williamson, is quoted by Annie BESANT as reporting that “one hundred and thirty-six different dates” were “fixed on by different Christian sects” (Besant, Esoteric Christianity, 1966, p. 110). Leadbeater suggests that the actual date may have been “some time in the spring” (loc. cit., p. 9).

Whatever may have been the reason December 25th was chosen, it is certainly appropriate from an esoteric point of view. Various theosophists have written extensively on the subject. 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, each solar system, presided over by a Logos, recapitulating the cosmic event. It is also claimed by some psychics that there is a special outpouring of energy upon the world at this time (cf. Dora van Gelder [Kunz], The Christmas of the Angels, 1960). Leadbeater further states that the story of wise men being guided to the birth place 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 could represent either the acknowledgment of the new initiate by other initiates or possibly, considering them and their traditional gifts metaphorically, the purification of the vehicles of the initiate’s personal consciousness (myrrh for physical, frankincense for emotional, gold for mental). Thus, Christmas is related to the Initiatory cycle, sometimes called the birth of the power of universal love. For some who are not yet at that stage of spiritual development, Christmas is experienced merely as a greater feeling of brotherhood, of peace and love (cf. Leadbeater, op. cit., pp. 27-32). Obviously and unfortunately, however, this is not the case for everyone!

Frazer suggests, in his Golden Bough, that Christmas was borrowed directly from Mithraism and points out that many so-called 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 lengthening of the daytime was important for growing crops, thus sustaining life. Various tribes engaged in rituals designed to ensure fecundity. The association of the rebirth of the sun with the astrological sign of Virgo at that time of year also led to the idea that the sun was born of a Virgin. In fact, as Frazer points out, celebrants in Syria and Egypt retired into inner shrines from which they came out at midnight, crying, “The Virgin has brought forth. The light is waxing.” The Egyptians even represented the new-born sun by the image of an infant (The Golden Bough, 3rd ed., part IV, p. 303).

The theosophical writer Gottfried de PURUCKER offers another interesting theory about the choice of December 25th. He suggests that it is because about this time of the year the Sun, Mercury, Venus, the Moon, and Earth are often in alignment or nearly so. In ancient times this would be considered of great astrological significance. The life-giving forces emanating from the Sun would pass through or near the inner planets and Moon, taking on some of the characteristic energies of each of these bodies (The Dialogues of G. de P., Vol. I, p. 126).

The traditional Christmas story of the Nativity is derived mostly from Matthew’s Gospel; only Luke makes any other mention of it, adding some extra events, such as the Magnificat, to the story. From a historical point of view, this is rather strange because the account in Matthew is very dramatic and one would expect the other Gospellers to have included it, especially the slaughter by the Roman government of all new-born Jewish males. Since no contemporary historian, such as Josephus, mentions that event, it must be of esoteric, not historical significance. There are several possible interpretations, but one would be that Herod represents our past 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 BCE to poor, but well-born and spiritually developed, parents who belonged to one of the mystery schools of the time. This would have been during the reign of the Maccabees when the so-called Holy Land was under the control of orthodox Jews, not under foreign domination, although Besant identifies the “consulates” as Romans — Publius Rutilius Rufus and Gnæus Mallius Maximus (loc. cit., p. 88). His Jewish name would have been Jeshua, later Romanized as Jesus. She states that as a young man he was first trained by an Essene community in southern Judea and later, at the age of 19, sent to the Essene monastery at Mount Serbal which had a library of occult works from India, Persia, and Egypt. His familiarity with such books may be the source of various stories that he actually traveled to Egypt and India — and even, some claim, Tibet. At the age of 29 or 30, he was used (“overshadowed” some sources say) by the spiritual personage known as the World Teacher (or Lord Maitreya in Buddhism). It is this event which led to his being called “Christ.” Geoffrey HODSON claims that “Jesus was an extraordinarily beautiful character and compassionate human being . . . had brown hair and eyes, moustache and beard, not thick. . . . His skin was slightly browned, rather like a deep tan. He was very erect in carriage of his body. He sometimes walked with a staff consisting of a quite strong, but very thick piece of wood about shoulder height or a little more. He specially loved children and they adored him” (Hodson, Clairvoyant Investigations of Christian Origins and Ceremonial, 1977, pp. 1-2).

A somewhat different account of his birth is given in Talmudic sources, especially the Toldoth Jeschu, which are quoted as historically accurate by H. P. Blavatsky in her various writings, although seriously questioned by some noted scholars, such as Charles Guignebert. This account is also repeated by G. R. S. (George Robert Stow) Mead, who had been HPB’s private secretary in 1887 and 1890-91, in his book Did Jesus Live 100 B.C.? (1903, facsimile reprint by Health Research Press, 1965; reprint with new introduction by University Books, 1968). HPB gives Jesus’ name variously as Jehoshua ben Pandira (CW VIII:189, 204, 380) or Jeshu ben-Panthera (CW IV:361), his birthplace Lud or Lydda (CW VIII:189), his mother’s name as “Stada (alias Miriam),” and his father’s name as Panthera, “a Roman soldier” (CW IV:362). Hence, she states, he “was not of pure Jewish blood, and thus recognized no Jehovah” (SD I:578). Some Jewish sources even suggest that he was an illegitimate child (cf. Mead, loc. cit., pp. 260-1). HPB states that he lived from 120 to 70 BCE (CW IV:362) and was a disciple of Rabbi Jehoshua ben Perahiah, his grand uncle and fifth President of the Jewish Sanhedrin after Ezra, with whom he fled to Alexandria, Egypt in 105 BCE 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 IV:362), stoned to death (CW VIII:189), and his body hung upon a tree outside the city of Lud (CW IV:362). This latter event would have taken place after Janneaus’ death when his wife, Salome, assumed the throne and came under the influence of ultra-orthodox Jews.

There are, then, some 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 be, 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.

P.S.H./R.W.B./V.H.C.

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