and welcome. This week we are going to deviate from our usual historical vein
to consider the underlying symbolism of Christmas in a philosophical context.
We will refer back, rather generally, to the pre-Christian concepts that were
observed by almost all-ancient societies at this time of the year as well as to
the application of these concepts in the birth of Christianity.
Throughout the course of history, as one leading religion
gave way to another, elements of the old orthodoxy were invariably incorporated
into the new belief system. Sometimes the transference was quite direct and the
correlations were obvious. Such is the case in the shift from Greek to Roman mythology.
Often, however, these carry-over elements were adopted under a wholly different
guise so that one has to look below the surface in order to discern the similarities.
Scrutiny reveals that the most important dates in the
Christian calendar are, in fact, homologues to pre-Christian observances. Christmas
is no exception. It is an observable fact that the Yuletide coincides with an
ancient pagan rite: the celebration of the winter solstice.
Ebb and Flow of Solar Force
In the celestial cycle, the solstices
mark the two points of reversal in the relationship between day and night. If
the days have been waxing, they shall henceforth wane; if they have been waning,
they will begin to wax.
At the winter solstice, the shortest
day meets the longest night. Here, the growth of night, much feared by ancient
man, is checked by the day-force, which quietly begins to increase in strength.
(Ultimately it reaches its zenith at the summer solstice and the corresponding
fiesta of Sant Joan, also an ancient pagan rite.) The force of light however is
still but a flicker of hope in the vast, dark silence of the winter night. In
Christian philosophy, this small flame represents the spark of celestial fire
that burns in the heart of every true believer. It is the birth of the Christ-child,
still an infant, but destined to become a man - the herald of a new age.
priest, Joan Marí Cardona, affirms that the fluctuating relationship between
light and darkness has always been of paramount importance in Christian liturgy.
He traces its symbolism with biblical references starting in the Book of Genesis.
Let There Be Light
Of all God's works,
the foremost was the creation of the world. The first step in this great act was
the separation of light from darkness. To the night belonged nothingness and oblivion,
while day became the realm of all life, growth and abundance.
on in the Old Testament, the Prophets of Israel foretell the coming the Christ.
They prophesied the imminent arrival of a man who would bring light to the world
and illuminate its entire people.
True to the symbolism
of the winter solstice, Jesus was born at midnight, a ray of light emanating from
the deepest dark. The fabled shepherds in their field witnessed this splendour
radiance and hastened to the crude manger in Bethlehem where the Baby Jesus lay
sleeping in this crib.
Meanwhile, the Three Magi were
being guided by celestial navigation. The well-known carol reminds us of their
quest: "We three kings of orient are / Bearing gifts we traverse afar / Field
and fountain, moor and mountain / Following yonder star."
the wise men stopped in the city of Jerusalem (evil Herod's domain) to ask for
the newborn king, the star disappeared. Only when the Magi again set forth on
their proper course to Bethlehem did the star reappear to guide them faithfully
to the object of their adoration.
The biblical 'light motif'
(if I am allowed the pun) continues during Christ's adult life when the evangelist
St. John extolled this message: "Jesus is the light come to illuminate the
world." In his own teachings, Jesus affirmed: "I am the light of the
world. I have come that men may have abundant life." But, in reference to
the men of bad will, He says: "They prefer the darkness of the shadows to
the light of day, that their deeds may be concealed."
with the death of Jesus, came the withdrawal of light: "A thunderous noise
was heard and darkness descended over Mount Calvary." Not until His resurrection
three days later and His ascent to heaven was light restored.
Marí Cardona concedes that scholars have never been
able to establish with any true accuracy the exact birth date of the historical
Jesus. In his opinion, it was the significant symbolic proximity of the Christ
story to the pagan concept of the winter solstice, which also determined the chronological
proximity of the two dates. He observes that, "the fight between light and
dark, good and evil, is a millenarian idea of many peoples. Especially in the
Mediterranean, it has always been a recurring theme."
these thoughts in mind, it is interesting to note the typical Christmas custom
of lighting candles - the lone flame in the night - while at the opposite fiesta
of Sant Joan and the summer solstice, huge bonfires are set ablaze to signify
the ephemeral triumph of day over night.
In his treatise,
The Pulse of Life, philosopher Dane Rudhyar describes the Christmas event thus:
"The time of the winter solstice has now come . . . The days have decreased
in length as much as they ever will. Long, wintry nights absorb nature in their
repose . . . Death seems to rule supreme over the visible universe. And yet, somewhere
and forever, a new Christ is born. Life surges once more with the sun from its
southern decline. The sun moves northward, its daily arc of light becomes slowly
tauter and more radiant. The promise of spring spreads life a mystic fire over
the earth to tell 'men of good will' that the New Life has begun to win over arrested
Rudhyar then challenges us with this query:
"What is this new life that men have symbolized in the beautiful Christ-story,
whose roots go deeply into the soil of older mythologies? Who is the eternal 'Christos',
whose significance remains everlastingly true and vital, whether or not men believe
in the historical or religious Christ?"
Surely there are as many answers as there are readers. If anything,
Christmas is a time for reflecting on the values we chose to live by. For many
it is a time for reaffirming long-held beliefs, while for others it is a time
to resume the quest into the Great Beyond. But, whatever it is you are celebrating
this season (e.g. Christmas, Hanukkah, Ramadan, or none of the above), I wish
you a happy one! Next week we will take a closer look at Ibiza's Christmas tradition.
Please join us,