Christmas time we have in our midst a number of ancient symbols: the Star in the East, the Unconquered Sun once more turning northward with a presage of Spring; the mistletoe and holly, the boar's head, the Christmas bells. And whether we know it or not, in many of our observances we are following ancient customs, chief of these being the family or community gathering around the symbolic Tree. Many families bundle into the car on Christmas night and take a turn around the neighborhood, just to enjoy the magical effect of the out-door Christmas-trees on lawns or in gardens, as well as to glimpse those inside the brightly-lighted windows which had borne the gifts and had presided at the reunion, and had once more seen perpetuated the sanctity of the family and the home.
It is an oddity of our modern life that we recognize the quaintness of the customs of other lands and times, but forget that we too have customs almost equally well-defined and as binding. Who among us, for example, would think of taking no part in the general gift-giving, or exchange of greetings? Or leave the home without a sprig of Christmas evergreen or some sign of festive joy? Who could possibly go untouched by the universal spiritual abundance; who could neglect to add his mite for the remembrance of the unfortunate and the disabled, so that no one should be forgotten at the holy time? For once, we cast aside the too self-centered conduct of our lives and their artificialities, and taste the essential ichor of self-forgetfulness.
Our Christmas customs, spontaneous though they may seem to us today, are really survivals of a time when their significance was realized. And even now, we can perceive that the Christmas Tree is far more than merely a symbol of festivity. In it we may see, as the ancients did, the World Tree, or tree of the universe, with its roots in the invisible, and its branches, twigs and leaves representing Our visible universe. The Tree stretching forth its branches pictured the coming-into-being of the great universal systems and suns; the colored lights and ornaments in the shape of balls or shining globes were to them the celestial bodies that make the night-sky a concourse of majestic presences. The placing of gifts on the Tree was a reflection of the beneficence of the gods, who gave themselves so that the universe could come into being. Even today, with every gift laid under the Tree or hung upon it, there is an iota of that same divine feeling, linking us with the gods.
The Christmas Tree carries within it the spiritual history of the human race, in countless old traditions, myths and legends that can be recalled. Whether we want to take it from the Yggdrasil, or World Tree of the ancient Norse, the sacred Ash of the Greeks, or the Aswattha of the Hindu mythology, all of these, and the legends of other Aryan peoples, imbody the story of the awakening of the soul in mankind. With the ancient Norse, as beautifully told in Asgard and the Gods, the Yggdrasil, the Tree of the Universe, had its roots in the invisible realms, the world of causes; and the Norns, the three sisters who are like the Three Fates of the Greeks, and who respectively watch over the Past, the Present, and the Future, water this tree faithfully throughout the lifetime of the world. Under this Tree the infant humanity lived in its Golden Age, protected and in peace, as children have always lived. In the Greek legend, older than that of Prometheus, but having the same theme, a bird nestled in the boughs of the celestial tree, and stole the fruit and brought it to men; and this marked the awakening of man to the knowledge of good and evil, but it also marked the first opening of his spiritual perceptions. This is the true story of Adam and Eve, who started on the long journey of conscious evolution when they left behind the Garden of Eden, the Paradise of their racial childhood. At the same time that they became acquainted with evil, their eyes were also opened to spiritual things; from then on, the growth of the higher faculties became possible.
And here is the most intriguing part of the story. It was those divine beings, who had been men but had outgrown the human stage, whose duty it was to kindle this spark of consciousness in the child-humanity; and according to the spiritual history, the first higher feeling evoked in the newly-awakened man was a love for his spiritual creators and a remembrance of his oneness with them, as well as a sense of solidarity or brotherhood with all his fellows. From that feeling, the quality of devotion, of instinctive aspiration, arose, and has been the spiritual mainstay of man to this day. The knowledge that these higher feelings are of such immense antiquity makes it easier to understand why devotion has been called the first and foremost motor or energizing force in the nature of man.
Each one of these enlarging conceptions enhances the significance of the radiant Tree that comes into our midst at Christmas time, the time of the spiritual birth of many Saviors of mankind. In the Bible, Jesus is called "the Tree of Life," and it has been customary from time immemorial to associate all great Teachers and World-Saviors with this celestial Tree, because they have made themselves one with the inmost spirit of the universe, and therefore are properly so symbolized.
There is an old tale, fanciful but filled with beauty and meaning, a story of the origin of the Christmas Tree, which carries with poignant vividness the spirit of giving that is the very soul of Christmas.
It seems that near the humble home of the infant Christ in Bethlehem three trees grew — a palm, an olive, and a pine. And on that wonderful night when the Star appeared in the east, bringing the tidings that a new Teacher of men had come — all nature rejoiced, and poured forth her gifts. The olive tree brought forth its fruit; the palm made an arched and vaulted shade to protect the humble dwelling; but the pine-tree could offer nothing, and in its grief it wept transparent tears from every branch and needle.
A silent waiting star saw these tears and perceived the beauty and love in the heart of the little tree. This star communed with her companion-stars, and lo! a miracle took place. Hosts of shooting-stars fell down like a golden shower upon the pine. They twinkled and shone on every needle, from the bottom to the top. And from that time, so the legend tells us, and in memory of the companionship between the pine tree and the stars, men have followed the custom of ornamenting the pine tree with numberless lighted candles each Christmas-time.
Christmas is a perennial phenomenon. How else could we describe a festival of such compelling power that every human being who comes under its influence experiences in greater or less degree a spiritual regeneration? Altruism is universal, kindness blossoms in the bleakest souls, and we feel at one with all others and with the universe. What is the explanation? It can only be that as the earth passes through its cyclic changes, and man with it, there are times when, the invisible worlds are very near, and we feel the influence of mighty forces set in motion for the benefit of all that lives by those greater beings who have their place and work in the Great Economy, and by those who are passing on through sacrifice to places of still greater usefulness therein.
The simple Tree, with its forest freshness and its branches laden with the stars, comes among us once a year out of the Unknown, bearing, besides the visible tokens of love and goodwill, invisible gifts from the treasure-house of truth and universal wisdom.
(From Sunrise magazine, December 1951; copyright © 1951 Theosophical University Press)
"The other day, a seventeen-year old lad got marooned on a ridge over 7,000 feet tall in California's San Gabriel Mountains. He had planned to practise signaling with a companion who would scale an adjoining peak.
When he failed to appear, the companion called the rescue squads, and the lost lad was brought out of very rugged country by helicopter. At the hospital, where they treated his frost-bitten feet, he said he was not lost . . . "but his feet gave out." His ambition to explore and continue his mountain-climbing career was undimmed by his experience. "Next time," he declared, he would have stout boots, "high ones, with lacings."
Thus do we, in our daily doings, sometimes get marooned on a high ridge, with frost-bitten feet from loss of equipment, equipment which was wrong at the start. Good enough for the polished valley are the "low oxfords." For the higher peaks, and rough traveling, we need "high boots with lacings." — C. G. H.