Rudolf Steiner, December 19, 1904:
When we see the Christmas trees in the streets today, we might think that the custom of decorating a tree at Christmas is an ancient one. The custom itself, however, shows how the habits of men change. Christmas trees, which are to be found in almost every home today, represent a custom that did not exist a hundred years ago. A century ago you would not have found the streets bedecked with trees, nor would you have been able to find in the poetry and songs of that time any mention of them. The custom is a quite recent phenomenon that has been in vogue in Europe and America only since the second half of the nineteenth century. Trees first appeared as symbols of the Christmas festival around 1800. The festival itself, however, is ancient, even older than Christianity. Indeed, it was celebrated in all historical ages.
In Christianity the Christmas festival has been taken as a symbol for the birth of the Christian Redeemer only since the fourth century A.D. In the first Christian centuries, December 25th was by no means celebrated as the birthday of the Representative of Christianity. This has been so only since the fourth century. Nevertheless, in Roman times and among the Celts and Germanic peoples — even in ancient Egypt and other regions — a festival was celebrated at the same time of the year, but it was of a different character from the later Christian festival.
Now the conclusion could be drawn from this that the Christian Church, in establishing December 25th as the birthday of Jesus, did something that was against all historical tradition and constituted a kind of correction.
This is not the case. To understand the significance of the Christmas festival, one must recognize the ancient wisdom hidden in it. Festivals such as Christmas, Easter, and Whitsuntide are nothing but dates inscribed in the times by our ancestors, and they show us, their descendants, how the relationship of world and man and the great mysteries of existence were understood in earlier times. The one who is able to decipher the script that is written in the great festivals, or is able to read the hieroglyphics that time itself presents to us, finds there deep and significant mysteries of human development.
I said, and we shall see presently in what sense it is meant, that the Christmas festival has been celebrated since the beginning of history. Recorded history dates back to the Egypto-Chaldean or third post-Atlantean period. Our own period, the fifth post-Atlantean, in which the science and culture of the physical world is being developed, began in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The preceding period, the Greco-Roman, goes back to the eighth and ninth centuries B.C. to the time when Homer sang his poems to the Greeks. This age has left a record of the feelings and deeds that occurred during the fourth post-Atlantean period. Then we reach back to a still more ancient time, the gray antiquity of the age of the Judaic people, and the time when the Egyptian priests preserved a lofty wisdom that they disseminated to the common people only in an esoteric form. Here recorded history ceases.
What we know today of Persian history was recorded much later than when it actually occurred. The sublime religion of ancient India that is recorded in the Vedas and the Vedanta philosophy is of much later date than the actual age in which the great thoughts of the Rishis of ancient India, which were received directly from the divine spirits themselves, flowed through to mankind. So we can look back from our own period, which will still last for a considerable time, to the Greco-Roman period when Christianity appeared, and still further back to the age of the Egyptian priests. Then the paths disappear and only one who is able to look at history with different means can gain knowledge of ancient Persia, and even older times.
To really understand Christmas one must look back to that turning point in time when mankind, newly risen, was taught a new wisdom. At that time a great flood deluged the continent of the ancient Atlantean culture and a new culture, to which the epochs I have enumerated belong, was founded. An entirely new mode of thought and feeling arose in this new mankind, but nothing has been preserved of the culture of the Atlanteans, nor of that even more ancient people, the Lemurians, who perished when Lemuria was destroyed by fire.
When mankind reaches a new turning point in its evolution, it must briefly recapitulate what it has previously passed through. Thus, the peoples of the first three post-Atlantean periods had briefly to recapitulate three important evolutionary epochs of mankind. In ancient India the wise Rishis looked back to a time when the sexes did not yet exist, to a time when man was sexually still a unity. They looked back to a primeval man, known in occult teachings as Adam Kadmon, who was both man and woman. The highest cosmic being expressing this primeval unity was indicated by the sacred name Brahman. All manifoldness proceeded from Brahman, the Divine Unity. This unity was present for men on Earth only as long as the male and female sexes did not exist. Thus, in the spirit of the great Indian Rishis there appears, like a mirrored image, the divine primeval unity of man, the pre-human Adam Kadmon, in whom lived peace, spirit, clarity, and harmony. He it is who speaks in the Vedas that poured from the lips of the Indian Rishis. This occurred in the first period of human civilization after the great flood. At that time one did not yet speak of a trinity, of a threefold Divine Person, but solely of a primeval Unity, of Brahman, in whom everything was contained and in whom everything originated.
Then a time came when the Persian priests of Zarathustra, the wise Parsis, looked back to the epoch in which the two sexes were born out of fire, and man became a duality. With the birth of sexual man out of fire, evil, which had not previously existed, entered the world. Evil in the human sense did not exist before the division of the sexes that occurred in the middle of the Lemurian age. Good and evil have existed only since that time when they came to fill the last part of the Lemurian age and the first part of the Atlantean.
It is interesting to investigate in the spiritual accounts called the Akashic Record the way this twofold form of mankind expressed itself. Even the spiritual scientist who is able to decipher these wondrous documents is astonished to find how different the male and female elements of that time were as compared with what they are at present. Under the guidance of the wise leaders of mankind, woman developed the soul element, and man the element of will. In this way the duality of will and soul arose and confronted each other in the two sexes in the Atlantean period. Through the fact that the soul entered the physical body, evil entered mankind, and because mankind had to recapitulate the epoch that is characterized by the difference between good and evil, the fire worship of the religion of the Parsis appeared, that is, the doctrine of Ormuzd and Ahriman. This, as the Persian period of culture, precedes recorded history.
The duality of good and evil was taught in the religion of Zarathustra. Men were not yet concerned with a trinity, which came later at about the time when the first historical documents appeared. The Akashic Record gives no information of a trinity existing in pre-historical times. It only became necessary for people to look up to a third power after they came to distinguish between good and evil. Thus the figure of the mediator appeared — the conciliator, the redeemer from evil, who led mankind from evil to good, and he was most clearly present in the Mysteries of Mithras that originated in Persia and spread finally over the whole world.
In those ancient times men saw earthly events as a reflection of the Divine and of what had occurred in the great celestial vault of the heavens. If you study the Zodiac you will find there the signs of Cancer, Gemini, Taurus, and Aries. The vernal point of the sun advances according to certain laws so that in ancient times the Sun rose in spring in the sign of Cancer, later in the sign of Gemini, then in Taurus, and still later in the sign of Aries. At about the eighth century B.C. the Sun had entered the sign of Aries, the Lamb. In our age it has entered the sign of Pisces.
Earthly events are determined by what occurs in spiritual realms. Take the sign of Cancer, for example. Its true significance is not always known, but this sign, which consists of two intertwining spirals, when rightly understood points to the dawn of a new age. Whenever an important event occurs in the world, whenever one stage of evolution is superseded by another thereby bringing something new into the world, two such spiral movements intertwine. One spiral of the sign of Cancer indicates the end of the Atlantean culture; the other, the beginning of the Aryan culture. Our ancestors thus perceived in the heavens the outward sign for the rise of the new Aryan culture. At a later time the Sun entered the sign of Gemini, the Twins. This is the sign of good and evil, the sign that governed Persian thinking. Then the Sun entered Taurus. Here we have the third post-Atlantean period with its veneration of the Bull in the Egyptian Apis cult, the Babylonian cult of the Bull and its sacrifice, and the Mithraic cult of ancient Persia. Man brought the sacrifice of the Bull down to Earth from the heavens where it was inscribed.
The fourth post-Atlantean period, in which Christianity arose, began with the entrance of the Sun into Aries. This important turning point in history is indicated by the story of the Greek hero, Jason, who captured the Golden Fleece. A further important turning point is indicated by the sacrifice of the Mystical Lamb upon the Cross.
Let us understand this whole course of evolution correctly. After the duality of good and evil had been comprehended in human consciousness, the concept of the trinity arose and appeared in various religions. We recognize it in the Mithraic Mysteries that existed in many Mediterranean countries. Let us look at one of these Mystery temples. Only a symbolic action was performed for those who participated in the lesser Mysteries, but for those who were permitted to participate in the greater Mysteries the same events also took place as an event in the astral world. I can only describe the lesser Mysteries of the Mithraic cult now. The symbolic Bull became visible and the Mediator, the God, rode upon his back. He covered the Bull's nostrils, plunged a sword into his side and a snake and a scorpion appeared. Above the head of the God Mithras was a bird and over the whole group, on one side a being soared with a lowered torch, on the other a being with a raised torch, symbolizing the course of the Sun across the heavens.
This description represents human life as it lived in the consciousness of the men of that time. Man had reached the point of looking within himself for redemption, for the third divine principle that could lead him beyond evil, reconciling evil with good. Evil here consisted of the passions that drag man down to Earth, symbolized by the Bull. The Mediator who killed the lower nature by thrusting the sword into the side of the bull appeared as the immortal in man that can raise him to his higher self. Thus, during the time of the third post-Atlantean period a divine trinity appeared as mediator between good and evil, and mankind came to comprehend what is called in theosophy atman, buddhi, and manas. At the moment the mediator appeared the mystical secret was accomplished; the trinity had been awakened in man's consciousness.
Through his recognition of the unity, the duality, and the trinity, man was led to atman, buddhi, and manas. Atman, or spirit-man, is the unity man comes to experience in himself when he has achieved that stage. Buddhi, or life-spirit, will find expression in man through the overcoming of evil by good. Duality will purify the lower instincts and desires, and all evil will be consumed in the fire of love. Manas, or spirit-self, is the spiritual principle that rules human development even now. As the Messiah, the Redeemer, created a unison in the world that leads from disharmony to harmony, so duality is redeemed through the trinity in which evil is conquered by good.
So the human race reached the point of perceiving its destiny, pre-ordained by the eternal world order, in the Trinity. Man looked up to the threefold aspect of the Godhead and perceived a divine Trinity in the world upon which he himself was dependent. In truth, however, he first had to experience the descent of the Trinity to the Earth embodied as a human being, as his human brother. This was the great event that stands at the beginning of our era, and the Trinity thereby acquired an entirely new significance for human consciousness.
We can understand the deeper meaning of the Christmas festival only if we comprehend the Mediator in the right way. Out of unity, duality has developed, and out of duality, a chaos from which harmony is to be re-created — a re-creation that can only be brought about by the Mediator. This harmony can only find its expression in an eternal law that, in the time of the Mithraic cult, found its symbolical expression in the fact that in man himself people saw an image of the cosmic law that creates the everlasting harmonies of the world.
In the Mysteries of the Persian religion already mentioned you will find a sevenfold initiation of those permitted admission to the holy secrets. Those who had some knowledge of the most elementary secrets belonged to the first degree of initiation, and were given the symbolic name of the “Ravens.” The second degree was that of the “Occult Ones,” the third, that of the “Warriors” or “Fighters” for the sacred truth. The fourth degree was that of the “Lions,” and the fifth, the “Persians.” Only one in whom the consciousness of spirituality we call manas had awakened was considered to be a full “Persian,” an initiate of the fifth degree. A member of his people in the true sense of the word, he represented the destiny of his people. If he advanced to the next degree of initiation he no longer represented the character of his people but that of all mankind in its development from the third phase of evolution, that is, the middle of the Lemurian epoch, into the fifth phase, the post-Atlantean. Such an initiate was called a “Sun Runner” or a “Sun Hero,” and all Sun Heroes mentioned in ancient books are initiates of the sixth degree. The last degree of initiation was that of the “Father,” which was connected with the future development of mankind.
What does the name “Sun Runner” signify? If you were to look back into the primeval ages of our solar system, you would find that it arose from out a battle of chaotic heat; you would find that harmony in our world emerged out of disharmony, and that peace and law developed from non-peace and disharmony. The course of the Sun is so regular that we cannot imagine that it might deviate and turn from its path even momentarily. Our universe is so firmly and harmoniously grounded that nothing can throw the Sun off its destined course. In the path of the Sun across the sky the ancient Persian initiate of the sixth degree saw his own inner destiny. The Sun of his inner life, the Sun of his spirit, had to shine for him with the same certainty as the outer Sun, making it impossible for him to deviate from the path of the good and the wise. The human being who had reached the sixth degree of initiation had to be so permeated by this lawfulness that it was impossible for him to stray from the path. He was a Sun Hero, a Sun Runner. The goal of all previous degrees of initiation was to give this inner certainty to man.
Men who knew something about the Mysteries saw a deep harmony between human destiny and the course of the Sun across the sky. They said that the Sun makes the days grow shorter as autumn approaches, that everything withdraws into the Earth. When Christmas arrives, a turning point is reached. The light increases, days grow longer, and nature reawakens. So the birth of the light at Christmas time has been celebrated since the times when the light became the symbol of revelation in the world and man. In the East all men of the post-Atlantean epoch saw in the light the garment of the wise world order, of world wisdom.
Gazing into cosmic space today, we see the light shining steadfastly and harmoniously from the stars. In reality, however, the Spirits of Wisdom reveal themselves through the light, which in ancient religions was conceived of as the garment of cosmic wisdom. It was at first celebrated as the unity, the primeval wisdom, then as the duality of light and darkness, and finally as the trinity, the illuminated human being, the teacher and mediator, Mithras.
But mankind could be blessed by this cosmic harmony only when a consciousness of it arose from the human heart itself. The external light, the light that is born out there in the universe, must today be born also in the human heart.
Christianity stands as the external mystical fact for the birth of the light. Christ brought to the Earth what had existed from the beginning, although it was hidden from mankind throughout the ages we have been speaking of. Now, however, a new climax was reached. Even as the light is born anew at the winter solstice, so in the fourth post-Atlantean period the Savior of Mankind, the Christ, was born. He is the new Sun Hero who was not only initiated in the depths of the Mystery temples but who also appeared before all the world so that it could be said: “Blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). When it was recognized that the Divine could descend into a personality, the festival celebrating the birth of the Sun Hero, the Christ, came to replace the festival celebrating the birth of the light.
What formerly was impossible could now be attained. Man could now give birth to light in his own soul. He could do this because the principle of light had incarnated in a human being for the first time. In this way the festival of the winter solstice was of necessity brought together with the Christ festival. The whole significance of the preceding evolutionary periods is determined by the establishment of the festival of the birth of Christ at the time of the festival of the winter solstice. Wisdom and light first appeared to men externally, but now, after the Christ event, the light must be kindled in man's own heart. Christ Himself must be born in man. It was for that reason that the Event of Palestine — a mystical as well as an historical fact — had to occur.
Thus, we are faced with an historical event, a great mystery that is little understood. The event that occurred in Palestine took place literally as it is described in the Gospel of St. John, and it is also a mystical fact. To conceive of this event otherwise is to misunderstand it. But if it is comprehended in this way it will also be understood why from this moment onward God can be thought of as a personality, and the Trinity, which previously was thought of differently, can now be understood in the form of three Divine Persons. Christ had now become a Person, thus proving that the Divine can be realized in man. He was the First on Earth in Whom the Divine had dwelled, and henceforth this could become a constant, indestructible ideal for man.
All the great teachers of wisdom — the Egyptian Hermes, the ancient Indian Rishis, Confucius, the Persian Zarathustra — have spoken the Divine Word. In Jesus the Christ, however, the Divine Word Itself walked on Earth in a living shape for the first time. Before this time there was on Earth only the Way and the Truth. Now we have the Way, the Truth, and the Life. The great difference between earlier religions and Christianity consists in the fact that Christianity is the fulfillment of the previous religions, that in Christ we are not concerned with a great teacher of wisdom — teachers of wisdom were present in all other religions — but with a human personality who at the same time must be revered as a Divine Personality. Herein is to be found the importance of the disciples' message: “We have laid our hand into His wounds, we have heard His message.” The emphasis is placed on the appearance, on the direct impression. It does not merely listen to the Word but considers the personality. The conviction prevailed that Christ was, in a unique fashion, the Cosmic Sun Hero.
If we comprehend this, we also understand that the ancient festival of the winter solstice signified something different from the present Christmas festival. In Egypt we find Horus, Isis, and Osiris, the archetypal image of what also lives in Christianity. In ancient India we have the birth of Krishna by the holy virgin. We find echoes of this myth everywhere, but what is important in Christianity is what I have just expressed. That is the fact that not only the Threefoldness but the Fourfoldness has become sanctified, that Holiness has descended right down into the personality. Previously, Holiness was divine and dwelled in unattainable heights above men. The ancient Rishis revered it as the indefinable, unutterable Brahman; the ancient Zarathustrian pupils saw it in the duality of good and evil; in Egypt we have the triad of Isis, Osiris, and Horus. The fact that the Divine has dwelled among men, that it has become Personality, however, was the secret of the fourth post-Atlantean period. The most important event for the men of this age is the fact that the Christmas festival, which always represented the birth of an initiate, now represents the birth of the greatest Sun Hero, of Christ Himself. Thus these two facts of necessity sound together in the world's course.
When we look at the fourth post-Atlantean period and compare it with the time in which we ourselves are living, we see that the Divine has descended still further. Today it has taken on a peculiar form, which must be understood if we wish fully to decipher the Christmas festival. Let us go back to the fourth post-Atlantean period, back to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries A.D. You will find full comprehension of the real personality of Christ by those who knew this mystery. The personality of Christ is comprehensively described, for instance, in the poem The Heliand, which puts Christ into a German setting. The Christ as personality is firmly implanted within mankind so that the conditions of other countries can be connected with His deed of redemption.
But another mood also arises. The belief in this archetypal image of mankind has been shaken. Something has appeared that in some ways signifies progress, since a much larger part of humanity participates in the course of the further development of Christianity. But these people have ceased to grasp the fact that the center of their thinking, feeling, and willing lies in the individual personality of Christ. Fewer and fewer men dare admit to themselves that it is not a question of doctrine, but rather of the Personality of Christ. This finally dissolves into a veneration of an abstract ideal that is conceived by the intellect and toward which men then come to strive.
Summing up: at the time of the first post-Atlantean period the Divinity was Brahman; during the second, it was the duality of light and darkness; in the third, it was the trinity. Then during the time of the fourth post-Atlantean period the trinity descended into a person on Earth; and now this Personality has descended even further to the stage of mere intellect, which has dissolved it so that it is revered only as an abstract ideal.
In our own fifth post-Atlantean period the time is being prepared that must come, bringing with it a belief in the new initiates, the Fathers. The initiates of the seventh degree are called the Fathers, as we have said, and in spiritual science we speak of the knowledge of the Masters, because it will be to the Masters, as the great leaders of mankind, to whom mankind will look in gratitude and veneration. The fifth post-Atlantean period repeats the three preceding periods in the great process of Advent. The three weeks of Advent symbolize these earlier periods, and man must once again pass through briefly the way the birth of the light was experienced at Christmas.
The birth of the light will be followed by life in the light. Christians, therefore, should not see in the Christmas festival something that passes. It is not a memorial festival commemorating what has occurred in the past. The Christmas message does not say “Christ has been born, Christ was born.” It says “Today Christ is born.” Today is always emphasized. This is significant. The emphasis on today should be understood in the sense in which Christ has spoken: “I am with you always, even unto the end of days.” This confronts us anew each year and reveals to us the connection between man and the heavens. It shows us that what has occurred in the heavens must also take place in man. Just as the course of the Sun cannot be altered a fraction without causing chaos, so likewise man must keep to his path. He must attain to that inner harmony and rhythm that is exemplified in Christ, Who was incarnated in Jesus and Who will be active in the Fathers whose guidance man will follow in future ages.
This is the connection between man and the heavens. Not only is the Sun to travel its unchanging course in the heavens, gaining new forces at the winter solstice: it will also bring about in man a birth of the light out of his deepest soul that will be a resurrection, a Sun Heroship of the fifth post-Atlantean period. For this reason do we have the Christmas saying: “Peace to men on Earth who are of good will.” Inner peace will bring the evolution of mankind into a rhythmical course, just as the Sun has acquired a regular rhythm in its course. In the course of the Sun we see an image of the eternal circular course of the cosmos. It has overcome its chaos and has attained peace. In this sense, Christmas is a festival of peace, streaming forth a mood of peace and harmony. When this is brought about, it will be celebrated in the right sense. In the tolling of the Christmas bells we hear not only the sounds of the church but also the striving of the whole of mankind as it works and has worked toward its further development since the time when the Earth with its spirituality arose from the great cold.
What the preceding races have longed for as their future has come to birth during the fourth post-Atlantean period. What the three subsequent ages must strive for resounds from the Christmas chimes because, if we truly understand what the Christmas festival expresses, the harmonies of the heavens speak to us. Every festival of the year is firmly based in primeval wisdom. They have not been arbitrarily established but have been created out of the deepest wisdom of the world. The one who can really understand them, celebrating them with full comprehension, finds in them the signs of ancient wisdom, of events that have taken place since the very beginning and that will continue into the future. In this way the festivals lose their conventional meanings and gain new significance. Thus, to read the great cosmic truths in this manner means to celebrate the cosmic festivals correctly. When you come to read the primal truths of the heavens in this way, you celebrate the great cosmic festivals with your heart, your senses, and your mind. Then they are celebrated genuinely out of the spirit and are of significance to mankind.
The anthroposophical science of the spirit is not mere abstract thoughts or a web of dogmas. It has a great task and world mission to accomplish in order to enliven again what mankind has forgotten, to strike fire again into what our ancestors have given us. Then human egotism will cease. Men will learn to live in the unitary spirit of the world, in a wisdom which, besides much else, streams from spiritual science. Spiritual science is practical in the best sense and gives us inner strength and certainty of hope. It makes possible the mood of peace and confidence of spirit that flow from the Christmas festival to permeate deeply the souls of those striving for spirit knowledge.
Exalted spiritual leaders of mankind have prescribed this festival for us in primeval ages. So at the end of this hour let us place before our souls the following as true Christmas wisdom.
Advanced human brothers are the leaders of the spiritual movement. They were already present at the beginning of the post-Atlantean age when the great cosmic festivals were established. Today, as the great teachers of mankind, they again reveal such truths to us. These teachings are not imparted to us out of speculation or as their own opinions, but because they were present when these things occurred. They have prepared the peace, which is to stream over mankind in the future, and they have created the holy script in these festivals. From this is to be read the message of peace, the message of inner soul bliss attainable through spiritual science. If we live in the way put forth by the Masters of Harmony we will gradually approach the great ideal that they themselves live. Spiritual science reminds us of these exalted leaders when we are seized by the Christmas mood. It speaks of peace and of the sacrificial gifts of the great Masters — a peace that streams into the future of mankind. We see it surrounded by the radiance of spiritual light and concordance of feelings. In the glory in which the Fathers appear we recognize those who lead us into the future. In our striving toward them a life is born out of our own soul that is immersed in peace and harmony, which, as the birth of peace at Christmas, is an image of the course of the Sun through the universe.
This is what the wise Magi, the great Masters, teach us. It is this that we are told by those human beings who speak not out of mere blind faith in these Masters but out of their full knowledge. The Masters exist; and the spiritual world movement under the guidance of the Masters is the great, sublime movement of peace that leads man to the cosmic harmony in which human souls will live with the unerring regularity of the Sun coursing through the universe, showing us the path to the radiant beauty of the Spirit Sun.