Rudolf Steiner, December 26, 1911:
When the candles are lit on the Christmas tree the human soul feels as though the symbol of an eternal reality is standing there, and that this must always have been the symbol of the Christmas festival, even in a far distant past. For in the autumn, when outer nature fades, when the Sun's creations fall as it were into slumber and man's organs of outer perception must turn away from the phenomena of the physical world, the soul has the opportunity — nay not only the opportunity but the urge — to withdraw into its innermost depths, in order to feel and to experience: Now, when the light of the outer sun is faintest and its warmth feeblest, now is the time when the soul withdraws into the darkness but can find within itself the inner, spiritual light. The lights on the Christmas tree stand there before us as a symbol of the inner, spiritual light that is kindled in the outer darkness. And because what we feel to be the spirit-light of the soul shining into the darkness of nature seems to be an eternal reality, we imagine that the lighted fir-tree shining out to us on Christmas night must have been shining ever since our earthly incarnations began.
And yet it is not so. It is only one or at most two centuries ago that the Christmas tree became a symbol of the thoughts and feelings which arise in man at the Christmas season. The Christmas tree is a recent symbol but each year anew it reveals to man a great, eternal truth. That is why we imagine that it must always have existed, even in the remote past. It is as if from the Christmas tree itself there resounded the proclamation of the Divine in the cosmic expanse, in the heavenly heights. The human being can feel this to be the unfailing source of those forces of peace in his soul which spring from goodwill. And thus, according to the Christmas legend, did the proclamation also resound when the shepherds visited the birthplace of the child whose festival we celebrate on Christmas day. To the shepherds there rang forth from the clouds: From the cosmic expanse, from the heavenly heights, the Divine Powers are revealing themselves, bringing peace to the human soul that is filled with goodwill.
For centuries and centuries men could not bring themselves to believe that the symbol presented to the world in the Christmas festival ever had a beginning. They felt in it the hallmark of eternity. Christian ritual has for this reason clothed the intimation of eternity in what takes place symbolically on Christmas night in the words: ‘To us Christ is born anew!’ It is as though every year the soul is called upon to feel anew a reality of which it is thought that it could happen once and once only. The eternity of this symbolic happening is brought home to us with infinite power if we have the true conception of the symbol itself. Yet as late as 353 A.D., 353 years after Christ Jesus had appeared on Earth, the birth of Jesus was not celebrated, even in Rome. The festival of Jesus' birth was celebrated for the first time in Rome in the year A.D. 354. Before then this festival was not celebrated between the 24th and 25th December; the day of supreme commemoration for those who understood something of the deep wisdom relating to the Mystery of Golgotha,was the 6th of January. The Epiphany was celebrated as a kind of birth-festival of the Christ during the first three centuries of our era. It was the festival which was meant to revive in human souls the remembrance of the descent of the Christ Spirit into the body of Jesus of Nazareth at the baptism by John in the Jordan. Until the year A.D. 353 the happening which men conceived to have taken place at the baptism was commemorated on the 6th of January as the festival of Christ's birth. For during the first centuries of Christendom an inkling still survived of the mystery that is of all mysteries the most difficult for mankind to grasp, namely, the descent of the Christ being into the body of Jesus of Nazareth.
What were the feelings of men who had some inkling of the secrets of Christianity during those early centuries? They said to themselves: The Christ Spirit weaves through the world that is revealed through the senses and through the human spirit. In the far distant past this Christ Spirit revealed Himself to Moses. The secret of the human ‘ I ’ resounded to Moses as it resounds to us from the symbol on the Christmas tree from the sounds I A O — the Alpha and the Omega, preceded by the I. This was what resounded in the soul of Moses when the Christ Spirit appeared to him in the burning bush.
And this same Christ Spirit led Moses to the place where he was to recognise Him in His true being. This is described in the Old Testament where it is said that the Lord led Moses to Mount Nebo ‘over against Jericho’ and showed him what must still come to pass before the Christ Spirit could incarnate in the body of a man. To Moses on Mount Nebo, this Spirit said: But thou, to whom I revealed myself in advance, mayest not bear what thou hast in thy soul into the evolution of thy people; for they have first to prepare what is to come to pass when the time is fulfilled.
And when, through many centuries, the evolutionary preparation had been completed, the same Spirit by Whom Moses had been held back did indeed reveal Himself --by becoming flesh, by taking on a human body, the body of Jesus of Nazareth. Therewith mankind as a whole was led from the stage of Initiation signified by the word ‘Jericho’ to that indicated by the crossing of the Jordan.
The hearts and minds of those who in the early centuries of our era understood the true import of Christianity turned to the Baptism in the Jordan of Jesus of Nazareth into whom Christ descended, Christ the Sun-Earth-Spirit. It was this — the birth of Christ — that was celebrated as a Mystery in the early Christian centuries. The insight for which we prepare ourselves today through Anthroposophy, through the wisdom belonging to the fifth Post-Atlantean epoch of civilization, flashed up in the form of vision from the vestiges of ancient clairvoyance still surviving during the age when the Mystery of Golgotha took place; it flashed up in the Gnostics, those remarkable, enlightened men who lived at the turning-point of the old and the new eras, whose conception of the Christ Mystery differed in respect of form, but not in respect of content, from our own. What the Gnostics were able to teach trickled through into the world and although what had actually come to pass in the event indicated symbolically by the baptism in the Jordan was not widely understood, there was nevertheless an inkling that the Sun Spirit had been born at that time as the Spirit of the Earth, that a cosmic Power had dwelt in the body of a man of Earth. And so in the early centuries of Christendom the festival of the birth of Christ in the body of Jesus of Nazareth, the festival of Christ's Epiphany, was celebrated on the 6th of January.
But insight, even dim, uncertain insight, into this deep Mystery faded away more and more as time went by. The age came when men could no longer comprehend that the being called Christ had been present in a physical human body for three years only. More and more it will be realized that what was accomplished for the whole of Earth-evolution during those three years in the physical body of a man is one of the very deepest and most difficult Mysteries to understand. From the fourth century onwards, with the approach of the materialistic age, the powers of the human soul — then still at the stage of preparation — were not strong enough to grasp the deep Mystery which from our time on will be understood in ever greater measure. And so it came about that to the same extent to which the outer power of Christianity increased, inner understanding of the Christ Mystery decreased and the festival of the 6th of January ceased to have any essential meaning. The birth of Christ was placed thirteen days earlier and envisaged as coincident with the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. But in this very fact we are confronted by something that must always be a source of inspiration and thanksgiving. Actually, the 24th/25th of December was fixed as the day of Christ's nativity because a great truth had been lost, as we have heard. And yet ... although the error would seem to point to the loss of a great truth, such profound meaning lay behind it that — although the men responsible knew nothing of it — we cannot but marvel at the subconscious wisdom with which the festival of Christmas Day was instituted.
Verily, the working of Divine wisdom can be seen in the fixing of this festival. Just as Divine wisdom can be perceived in outer nature if we know how to decipher what reveals itself there, so we can perceive Divine wisdom working in the unconscious soul of man when the following is borne in mind. In the Calendar, the 24th of December is the day dedicated to Adam and Eve, the following day being the festival of Christ's Nativity. Thus the loss of an ancient truth caused the date of Christ's birth to be placed thirteen days earlier and to be identified with the birth of Jesus of Nazareth — but in a most wonderful way the birth of Jesus of Nazareth was linked with the thought of man's origin in Earth-evolution, his origin in Adam and Eve. All the dim feelings and experiences connected with this festival of Jesus' birth which were alive in the human soul — although in their upper consciousness men had no knowledge of what lay behind — all these feelings that were astir in the depths of the soul speak a wondrous language.
When understanding was lost of what had streamed from cosmic worlds in the event which would rightly have been celebrated on the 6th of January, forces working in hidden depths of the soul caused the picture to be presented of man as a being of soul-and-spirit before physical embodiment, at the starting-point of evolution as a physical human being. The picture is of the new-born child whose soul is as yet untouched by the effects of contact with the physical body, of the child at the beginning of physical evolution on earth. But this is not a human child in the ordinary sense; it is the child who was there before human beings had reached the point of the first physical embodiment in Earth-evolution. This is the being known in the Kabbala as Adam Kadmon — Man who descended from divine-spiritual heights, with all that he had acquired during the periods of Saturn, Sun, and Moon. The human being in his spiritual state at the very beginning of Earth-evolution, born in the Jesus child — this was presented to mankind by a Divine wisdom in the festival of Jesus' birth. At a time when it was no longer possible to understand what had descended from cosmic worlds, from heavenly spheres, to the Earth, remembrance of their origin, of their state before the advent of the Luciferic forces in Earth-evolution, was engraved into the souls of men. And when it was no longer realized that in the highest and truest sense it could be said of the baptism by John in the Jordan: From cosmic worlds there has come into human souls the power of the self-revealed Godhead, in order that peace may reign among men who are of goodwill — when understanding of how this picture could be presented as a sacred festival was lost, another affirmation was presented in its place, the affirmation that at the beginning of Earth revolution, before the Luciferic forces began their work, man had a nature, an entelechy, that can inspire him with undying hope.
The Jesus of the Gospel of St. Luke — not the Jesus described in the Gospel of St. Matthew — is the child before whom the shepherds worship. To them the proclamation rang forth: Now is the Divine revealed from the heavenly heights, bringing peace to the souls of men who are of goodwill. And so for the centuries when the higher reality was beyond man's grasp, the festival was instituted which every year brings to his remembrance: Although you cannot gaze into the heavenly heights and there recognize the great Sun-Spirit, you bear within you, from the time of your earthly beginning, the Child-Soul in its state of purity, unsullied by the effects of physical incarnation; and the forces of this Child-Soul can give you the firm confidence that you can be victorious over the lower nature which clings to you as the result of Lucifer's temptation. The linking of the festival of Jesus' birth with remembrance of Adam and Eve gave emphasis to the thought that at the place visited by the shepherds a human soul had been born in the state of innocence in which the soul existed before the first incarnation on Earth.
At this time of festival, therefore, since the birth of the God was no longer understood, the birth of a human being was commemorated. For however greatly man's forces threaten to decline and his sufferings to take the upper hand, there are two unfailing sources of peace, harmony, and strength. We are led to the first source when we look out into cosmic space, knowing it to be pervaded by the weaving lift, movement, and warmth of the Divine Spirit. And if we hold fast to the conviction that this Divine-Spiritual Power weaving through the universe can permeate our being provided only that our forces do not flag — there we have the Easter thought, equally a source of hope and confidence flowing from the cosmic spheres. And the second source can spring from the dim inkling that as a being of soul-and-spirit, before he became the prey of the Luciferic forces at the beginning of his earthly evolution, man was still part of the same Spirit now awaited from cosmic worlds as in the Easter thought. Turning to the source to be found in man's own, original being, before the onset of the Luciferic influence, we can say to ourselves: Whatever may befall you, whatever may torment you and draw you down from the shining spheres of the spirit, your divine origin is an eternal reality, hidden though it be in the depths of the soul. Recognition of this innermost power of the soul will give birth to the firm assurance that the heights are within your reach. And if you conjure before your soul all that is innocent, childlike, free from life's temptations, free from all that has already befallen human souls through the many incarnations since the beginning of earthly evolution, then you will have a picture of the human soul as it was before these earthly incarnations began.
But one soul — one soul only — remained in this condition, namely the soul of the Jesus child described in the Gospel of St. Luke. This soul was kept back in the spiritual life when the other human souls began to pass through their incarnations on the Earth. This soul remained in the guardianship of the holiest Mysteries through the Atlantean and Post-Atlantean epochs until the time of the events in Palestine. Then it was sent forth into the body predestined to receive it and became one of the two Jesus children — the child described in the Gospel of St. Luke.
Thus did the festival of Christ's nativity become the festival of the Birth of Jesus.
If we rightly understand this festival we must say: That which we believe to be born anew symbolically every Christmas night is the human soul in its original nature, the childhood-spirit of man as it was at the beginning of Earth-evolution; then it descended as a revelation from the heavenly heights. And when the human heart can become conscious of this reality, the soul is filled with the unshakable peace that can bear us to our lofty goals, if we are of goodwill. Mighty indeed is the word that can resound to us on Christmas night, do we but understand its import.
Why was it that the festival of Christ's birth was set back thirteen days and became the festival of the birth of Jesus? To understand this we must penetrate into deep mysteries of human existence. Of outer nature, man believes, because he sees it with his eyes, that what the rays of the Sun charm forth from the depths of the Earth, unfolding into beauty through the spring and summer, withdraws into those same depths at the time when the outer Sun-sphere is darkest, and that what will spring forth again the following year is being prepared in the seeds within the depths of the Earth. Because his eyes bear witness, man believes that the seed of the plant passes through a yearly cycle, that it must go down into the Earth's depths in order to unfold again under the warmth and light of the Sun in spring. But to begin with, man has no notion that the human soul too passes through such a cycle. Nor is this revealed until he is initiated into the great mysteries of existence. Just as the force contained in the seed of every plant is bound up with the physical forces of the Earth, so is the inmost being of the human soul bound up with the spiritual forces of the Earth. And just as the seed of the plant sinks into the depths of the Earth at the time we know as Christmas, so does the soul of man descend at that time into deep, deep spirit-realms, drawing strength from these depths as does the seed of the plant for its blossoming in spring. What the soul undergoes in these spirit-depths of the Earth is entirely hidden from the ordinary consciousness. But for one whose eyes of spirit are opened the thirteen days and thirteen nights between the 24th of December and the 6th of January are a time of deep spiritual experience.
Parallel with the experience of the plant-seed in the depths of the natural Earth there is a spiritual experience in the Earth's spirit-depths — verily a parallel experience. And the seer for whom this experience is possible either as the result of training or through inherited clairvoyant faculties can feel himself penetrating into these spiritual depths. During this period of the thirteen days and nights, the seer can behold what must come upon man because he has passed through incarnations which have been under the influence of the forces of Lucifer since the beginning of earthly evolution. The sufferings in Kamaloca that man must endure in the spiritual world because Lucifer has been at his side since he began to incarnate on the Earth — the dearest vision of all this is presented in the mighty Imaginations which can come before the soul during the thirteen days and nights between the Christmas festival and the festival of the 6th of January, the Epiphany. At the time when the seed of the plant is passing through its most crucial period in the depths below, the human soul is passing through its deepest experiences. The soul gazes at a vista of all that man must experience in the spiritual worlds because, under Lucifer's influence, he alienated himself from the Powers by whom the world was created. This vision is clearest to the soul during these thirteen days and nights. Hence there is no better preparation for the revelation of that Imagination which may be called the Christ Imagination and which makes us aware that by gaining the victory over Lucifer, Christ Himself becomes the judge of the deeds of men during the incarnations affected by Lucifer's influence. The soul of the seer lives on from the festival of Jesus' birth to that of the Epiphany in such a way that the Christ Mystery is revealed. It is during these thirteen holy days and nights that the soul can grasp most deeply of all the import and meaning of the baptism by John in the Jordan.
It is remarkable that during the centuries of Christendom, wherever powers of spiritual sight developed in the right way, it was known to seers that vision penetrated most deeply during the period of the thirteen holy nights at the time of the winter solstice. Many a seer — either schooled in the mysteries of the modern age or possessing inherited powers of clairvoyance — makes it evident to us that at the darkest point of the winter solstice the soul can have vision of all that man must undergo because of his alienation from the Christ Spirit, how adjustment and catharsis were made possible through the Mystery enacted in the baptism by John in the Jordan and then through the Mystery of Golgotha, and how the visions during the thirteen nights are crowned on the 6th of January by the Christ Imagination. Thus it is correct to name the 6th of January as the day of Christ's birth and these thirteen nights as the time during which the powers of seership in the human soul discern and perceive what man must undergo through his life in the incarnations from Adam and Eve to the Mystery of Golgotha.
During my visit to Christiania last year it was interesting to me to find the thought which in rather different words has been expressed in so many lectures on the Christ Mystery, embodied in a beautiful saga known as ‘The Dream Legend.’ Strange to say, it has come to the fore in Norway during the last ten to fifteen years and has become familiar to the people, although its origin is, of course, very much earlier. It is the legend which in a wonderfully beautiful way relates how Olaf Åsteson is initiated, as it were by natural forces, in that he falls asleep on Christmas Eve, sleeps through the thirteen days and nights until the 6th of January, and lives through all the terrors which the human being must experience through the incarnations from the Earth's beginning until the Mystery of Golgotha. And it relates how when the 6th of January has come, Olaf Åsteson has the vision of the intervention of the Christ Spirit in humanity, the Michael-Spirit being His forerunner. I hope that on some other occasion we shall be able to present this poem in its entirety, for then you will realize that consciousness of vision during the thirteen days and nights survives even today, and is in fact being revivified. A few characteristic lines only will now be quoted. The poem begins:
Come listen to me and hear my song
The song of a wonderful youth,
I'll sing you of Olaf Åsteson
Who slept many days — 'tis the truth.
'Twas Christmas Eve when down he lay
And slept so long all unknowing,
He never woke till the thirteenth day
When to church the people were going.
Yes, it was Olaf Åsteson
Who lay so long a-sleeping.
And so the poem goes on, relating how in his dream during the thirteen days and nights Olaf Åsteson is led through all that man must experience on account of Lucifer's temptation. A vivid picture is given of Olaf Åsteson's journey through the spheres where human beings have the experiences so often described in connection with Kamaloca, and of how the Christ Spirit, preceded by Michael, streams into this vision.
Thus with the coming of Christ in the Spirit it will become more and more possible for men to know how the spiritual forces weave and hold sway and that the festivals have not been instituted by arbitrary opinions but by the cosmic wisdom which so often lies beyond the reach of men's consciousness yet works and reigns throughout history. This cosmic wisdom has placed the festival of the birth of Jesus at the beginning of the thirteen days. While the Easter Festival can always be a reminder that contemplation of the cosmic worlds will help us to find within ourselves the strength to conquer all that is lower, the Christmas thought — if we understand the festival which commemorates man's divine origin and the symbol before us on Christmas day in the form of the Jesus child — says to us ever and again that the powers which bring peace to the soul can be found within ourselves. True peace of soul is present only when that peace has sure foundations, that is to say, when it is a force enabling man to know: In thee lives something which if truly brought to birth can — nay, must — lead thee to divine Heights, to divine Powers.
The lights on this tree are symbols of the light which shines in our own souls when we grasp the reality of what is proclaimed to us symbolically on Christmas night by the Jesus child in its state of innocence: the inmost being of the human soul itself, strong, innocent, tranquil, leading us along our life's path to the highest goals of existence. May these lights on the Christmas tree say to us: If ever thy soul is weak, if ever thou believest that the goals of Earth-existence are beyond thy reach, think of man's divine origin and become aware of those forces within thee which are also the forces of supreme Love. Become inwardly conscious of the forces which give thee confidence and certainty in all thy works, through all thy life, now and in all ages of time to come.