In earliest ages throughout pre-Christian Europe and the British Isles the moment of the sun's annual rebirth was one of the important religious periods of the year. Christmas is a very ancient festival which comes down to us from pagan cultures existing thousands of years ago. Even the Stone and Bronze Age people with their horned gods are still present in "the old Abbots Bromley Horn Dance now performed in September and the old Christmas Bull of Wiltshire, the Welsh Mari Lwyd, and similar figures in Poland and Austria and elsewhere in Europe (cf. A Book of Christmas by William Sansom to whom the writer is much indebted)." In many countries the winter solstice was celebrated with festivities lasting twelve days, accompanied by a message of peace and good will aimed largely at calming farmers contending with each other over rights to land, water, or cattle.
The older European cultures were succeeded by Roman conquerors and Roman law. It was only natural that Caesar, after subduing most of Europe and England, should malign and misinterpret the traditional lore of Druidic and other peoples to justify his campaigns. During Roman rule the twelve-day celebration was generally shifted to coincide with the Saturnalia which began in mid-December and ran for seven days. This festival — honoring Saturn, ruler of the earth during its golden age of simplicity, virtue, and happiness — was a harvest-home festival marked by the cessation of private and public work, amusements and social games, a leveling of rank and age, and a making light of tradition. Britons and Celts and all celebrants of the solstice joined in to dance, drink wine, sing, and light their candles. They exchanged gifts of, among other things, wax tapers and dolls. The Greek Libanius wrote, "The impulse to spend seizes everyone. He who the whole year through has taken pleasure in saving and piling up his pence, becomes suddenly extravagant . . ." Also an expression of opposites was enacted, masters waited upon slaves, and so forth. A sixth-century Christian sermon included this comment: "How vile, further, it is that those who have been born men, are clothed in women's dresses . . .(Op. cit., p. 33-4.)" The Saturnalia was followed by the Kalendae festival of the new year and Janus, god of entrances and doors, whose two faces looked to the past and the future.
Into such a mixture of customs came the mass of Christ. In its beginnings Christianity had to struggle for existence with the many religions in Rome and throughout the Empire. Among these was Mithraism, originating in Persia, whose popularity spread widely. Adhered to by the majority of the Roman troops, it had much in common with Christianity: baptism, a sacramental meal, observance of the Sabbath, and birth of a savior at the winter solstice. Christianity stressed monotheism more than did Mithraism, but held similar ideas of good and evil, of moral uprightness, salvation, and heaven and hell. Mithra emerged godlike and awe-inspiring from a rock, and Christ was portrayed in early times as born "in a cave and no cattle-shed," as we now think of it. But Mithraism, according to Sansom, gave no place to women, whereas the Christian church recognized women as having souls and received them along with men. This meant double converts and without doubt contributed heavily to the spread of Christianity. Taking advantage of Roman roads the early Christian missionaries had easy access to the conquered peoples. They made their appeal to the poor, and all along the route they traveled they established groups, each overseen by a bishop, and a number of them met in underground temples.
After the fall of Rome the Christian Church conducted a campaign of repression similar to Caesar's, all the while absorbing and adapting pagan customs until it was difficult to know what were their original beliefs. In those early years Christ's birth was celebrated on various days of December, January, and March, as the church did not establish Christmas as a Christian festival until the mid-fourth century. In the fifth century, the 25th of December was selected for the birth of Jesus, with the first day of the new year falling seven days later. In 601 Pope Gregory directed Augustine of Canterbury to decorate the churches as the pagans did their temples, but to sanctify the occasion by Christian feasting. "Nor let them now sacrifice animals to the Devil, but to the praise of God kill animals for their own eating, and render thanks to the Giver of all for their abundance. . . . For from obdurate minds it is impossible to cut off everything at once" (p. 30). This decking of the churches with pagan evergreens included holly, rosemary, bay, and fir, but no mistletoe, perhaps because when taken from the oak tree it was especially sacred to the Druids and Celts.
The process of assimilation has continued so that our celebration today is a mixture of many cultures and customs. As Sansom brings out:
When the English-speaking countries sit down at lunch-time to a "traditional Christmas dinner," they eat an Aztec bird by an Alsatian tree, followed by a pudding spiced with sub-tropical preserves, while in England itself the most popular of Christmas carols still tells of the Bohemian King Wenceslas to music taken from a Swedish spring song. — pp. 10-11
With this conglomeration of customs, we may wonder whether there is any esoteric reality behind these festivities. To understand the real basis behind our Christmas celebration we have to go back to pre-Christian times. For at least a thousand years before the Christian era, the near-Eastern world was, in a spiritual and intellectual sense, running down like a giant clock, reaching its lowest point in the dark ages. The ancient pagan religions and their Mysteries became increasingly decadent and in certain instances depraved. Eventually the Eleusinian and Samothracian Mysteries of Greece, the centers in Syria, Persia, and Egypt, and those of the Druids of Europe either ceased to exist or became like dried husks containing no life of the spirit. But to the last there were a few centers and individuals of spiritual stature, though their light became hidden until it was but a flicker.
The initiatory cycle, however, was known by many. This was portrayed in the Eleusinian rites and more distantly in the Christian Easter when the neophyte entered the initiation chamber and after three days in the underworld was resurrected. In the solar rite of the Greater Mysteries the initiant entered the crypt and left his body for fourteen days while his spirit-soul traveled to the sun, shedding in each planetary sphere the aspect of itself that belonged there. When totally freed, it became infilled with the solar god. On its return the spirit-soul gathered to itself its respective planetary life-energies and finally entered its entranced body. Resurrected, the initiant was said to have "risen from the dead," for initiation follows the same pathways traveled during death, only with full awareness. Such a person glowed with the light of the sun. This sacred event was called Epiphany, from the Greek epiphaneia, appearance, that is, the appearance of divinity through the just returned neophyte fourteen days following what was then the winter solstice. Later the Christians observed January 6th as the feast of the Magi.
There is in fact a unity of truth between the celebrations of the birth of a Savior and the birth of the new year, which goes beyond the astronomical sun reaching its southernmost point and commencing its northern journey. The birth was not of Jesus but of the Christ in him, the solar life and light — hence the custom of lighting candles at Christmas. This was a birth of the spirit, a second birth. Indeed, Jesus was said to have been born anew at the particular time of the year when it is possible for the spiritual life of the solar being to infill him. This relation to the sun is expressed in an early Christian hymn used as late as the seventh century:
O Thou, Real Sun, infill us,
Shining with perpetual light!|
Splendor of the holy Spirit
Pervade our minds!
— Rambach 118
Life was accepted as being everywhere and in everything. As Paul said to the Athenians on Mars Hill (Acts 17:28), "For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring." And again, "For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things" (Rom. 11: 3 6). H. P. Blavatsky portrays the view of the ancients: "The Sun is matter, and the Sun is Spirit. Our ancestors — the 'heathen,' [were] wise enough . . . to see in it the symbol of Divinity, and at the same time to sense within, concealed by the physical Symbol, the bright God of Spiritual and terrestrial Light" (The Secret Doctrine, I, 479).
The birth of Jesus at Christmas followed by Epiphany, and the death of Jesus on the cross and the resurrection after three days at Easter, are in a sense a division of the initiation ritual acts. Spirit is crucified upon the cross of matter, not only cosmically in the spiritual solar being, the Real Sun, but in the spirit within each human being. Only after the human soul has risen above his animal nature can he bring his Christ into manifestation; hence the symbolic sacrifice of animals by the pagans during the period of their winter festival. This illustrates the accomplishment of the initiant and the future promise for every person and being. It is the hidden story of Jesus the Christ, and also the reason the festivities of the winter solstice were universally held: to commemorate the birth of the solar being in man.
(From Sunrise magazine, December 1987/January 1988. Copyright © 1987 by Theosophical University Press)