As we enter the sacred time around Christmas once again, I wonder about the deeper meaning of our celebration of the Holy Night. It seems that this season, instead of being quieter than the rest of the year, is even more busy. Many people just lack the time to think about the true significance of Christmas and the tree which has become a symbol of this holiday throughout the world. Exhausted from buying gifts for their families and friends, from fixing up the house and cooking elaborate dinners, all too many at the climax of all their trouble and work are ready to collapse under the tree — now they can sit down and relax for a moment before their attention turns to unwrapping gifts and watching others do the same. But is a Christmas tree really nothing more than a decorative addition to the celebration?
We can perhaps see behind the outward glamor of the tree with its candles, balls, silver tinsel, and a shiny star at the top, by looking at it again with an open heart and listening to what it can tell us. In ancient philosophies and religions, for instance, we find that the tree has often been used as a symbol for the universe, whose roots sprang forth from the divine heart of all things and whose trunk, branches, twigs, and leaves were the different worlds and spheres. The colorful glass balls on it then stand for the manifold planets and globes, connected with everything else throughout the cosmos by the symbolic tinsel and gay festoons. And the candles: in one way, they represent the divine spark that is in every living being, linking us all together on a higher level and making of us potential gods. But they also denote light, which brings forth and is all life in the universe. Light is both spirit and matter, so that everything is really a form of light. Finally, the star at the top of the tree may symbolize our own highest self or, from a universal standpoint, the divine essence of the cosmos towards which all of us as god-sparks are striving.
In Genesis we read about the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. H. P. Blavatsky describes the tree of life as inverted, with its roots generated in heaven, growing out of the Rootless Root of all-being. Its trunk grew and developed, crossing the expanses of space or pleroma: it shot out crossways its luxuriant branches, first on the plane of hardly differentiated matter, and then downwards till they touched the terrestrial world. Thus the universe was formed in its entirety.
Of the other tree the Bible says: ". . . of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die." Adam, an unself-conscious godspark or monad, disregarded that warning and ate from the tree of knowledge, thus entering upon the path of evolution. From its unselfconscious state the monad then became self-conscious and was on its way to becoming a fully self-conscious god through suffering and experience in the lower realms of matter. For, ". . . Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever." Only by becoming fully evolved or completely awakened beings can we recognize our divinity and take a conscious part in the cosmic work which is the whole purpose of evolution.
The tree also appears in the Edda as a mystical expression for the embodied universe. The Scandinavian tradition explains that the fruit of this cosmic tree contains the seeds of future "trees," beings who by inner growth have reached the end of their development on any one level. These entities, human beings or gods perhaps, are each a small universe and are destined in the future to enter upon still higher evolutionary paths in new forms of existence, to become eventually beings like their cosmic parent.
These various thoughts may give us clues as to the hidden meaning behind our celebrating Christmas with a tree. In trying to find this meaning, each person will certainly have his own ideas about it, but isn't there a deep sense of joy in catching a glimpse of a larger dimension within the outer beauty, within the decoration and candles on our Christmas tree?
(From Sunrise magazine, December 1978. Copyright © 1978 by Theosophical University Press.)
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