Although the Christmas tree is one of our most beloved traditions, we may have lost our sense of its essential meaning. The true Gift of Christmas is ecumenical: that our Source, ever-present but forgotten, may reveal itself to us.
There are various legends regarding the origin of the Christmas tree. In one version, Saint Boniface came upon the pagan sacrifice of a child at an oak tree. With a blow of his fist, the saint flattened the oak, whereupon a small fir sprang up in its place. This, Boniface told the pagans, represented Christ. In another account, Martin Luther, walking home through the forest at night experienced the presence of God as the brilliance of the stars shimmering though the branches of a pine tree. Thus enkindled, he came up with the inspiration to celebrate Christmas by decorating a tree with candles and silver and gold tinsel.
The Christmas tree has come to symbolize the birth of Christ. Christians derive this event from the story of the birth of Jesus, but the Christ is a transcendental possibility for all humanity. What this means is that when your consciousness realizes its own deepest essence, it becomes illuminated, generating an ornamental world and the compassion whose greatest expression is giving. This is the way true Christians experience what they call ‘the living Christ’. Accordingly the Christmas tree symbolizes the existential essence of Christianity. At the same time however, it celebrates the potential of everyone to realize this essence.
To understand the universal experience of ‘the living Christ’, we have to appreciate the state of gnosis. Gnosis is Greek for a state of fundamental awareness that produces true compassion. This state of awareness is known throughout the East by many names; notably, in the Sanskrit tradition as jnana and in the Buddhist tradition as bodhi. This awareness, being fundamental, is potential in all of us at any moment, to be discovered by those who develop the ‘skillful means’ to do so. The true purpose of a spiritual path is to show the way to this state, and the function of religion is to clothe the state in mythology with a symbolism that provides access to it.
What is experienced in this state is the fundamental essence of our living Being. It is the primordial given of our conscious existence, which is usually described as eternal. According to the great adepts of history, pristine gnosis is so fundamental that it exposes us to that in us which is never born and never dies, which they call ‘immortality’. Any human being has the potential to experience gnosis as a quickening state of awareness and presence revealing the highest and deepest possibility of our common Being.
It is difficult to achieve this state, because we are all wrapped up in the darkness of our egoistic reality and distracted by its projects. Christians describe this darkness as the state of sin; Buddhism describes it as samsara; and the Sanskrit tradition calls it maya. The function of religion and spiritual practice is to roll back this egoistic illusion so that the state of gnosis can occur. However, since what is revealed in gnosis is primordial and given, its revelation can also come upon us spontaneously and shine forth its truth in an experience, known as Grace, which is ultimate and indubitable. This is the birth of the living Christ.
So what about the Christmas tree? Its symbolism culminates when the tree is lit up, ornamented, with a star or angel at its peak and overflowing at its base with gifts. Now that we have an understanding of the living Christ as gnosis, let us look at each of these elements and its meaning.
The tree symbolizes the fundamental essence or structure of our living Being. The ‘tree of life’ is a motif in various world theologies, mythologies and philosophies, associated with fertility and immortality, both elements of the state of gnosis. With its roots in the earth of our fundamental being, the tree reaches into the heavens of our highest possibility, elegantly and simply symbolizing gnosis. In the Christian tradition the tree is coniferous, its evergreen quality reflecting how what is revealed is intrinsic to life, always there as the underlying nature of existence. The shape — a broad base ascending to a sharp peak – unites lowest with highest, earth with heaven, the instinctive with the divine.
The Star or Angel
At the peak of the tree we place an angel or star, representing the host of angels or the Star of Bethlehem from the Nativity story. This indicates the way that the source of the experience of the living Christ, gnosis, announces itself as the place or state where God, or the Source, reveals itself in human existence. The Source is the highest. Gnosis is experienced as the ultimate possibility of Being. Its ‘birth’ is the Grace by which the highest reveals itself to the lowest and gloriously redeems it.
Christmas occurs in the Winter Solstice, which is the darkest time of the year. Yet our quintessential Being is infinite radiant light. Christmas is the moment, even in our darkest hour, when this luminous potential of the Kingdom, always present, though unknown (as yet unborn), can be born or reveal itself in us. When this experience of our universal Being occurs, our world becomes radiant. This is the ‘Kingdom of God’. In the darkness of our egoistic reality, it is what we most need.
When the tree of life, our basic consciousness which is infinite radiant light, reveals itself, uniting lowest with highest, a luminosity of love occurs lighting up all things as a reflection of itself. In our ordinary world, not of the Kingdom, all things and events have their own mundane story and purpose that make up our everyday reality. The luminous tree of life lights up this world with a new vibrancy, no longer featuring things and events having meaning and value in themselves, but now strikingly relevant to the radiance of the Kingdom. When the world becomes luminously radiant, all things in it become ornamental, reflecting this radiance. Material reality is transformed.
Gnosis generates compassion. When this luminous awareness is born within us, it transforms our most primitive instinct to get into our highest impulse to give. The empathetic understanding that follows upon the state generates the impulse of giving, which becomes a motivation of tremendous force. This sublime power creates such a joy in our hearts, that what we most want is to give happiness and relieve suffering – not just to our loved ones, but to all fellow creatures, all sentient beings. This powerful desire expresses the bliss of the Kingdom and is its natural outgrowth. The custom of giving gifts arises from this experience. St Nicholas, the precursor of Santa Claus, impersonates this highest impulse. The excitement of a child receiving a gift demonstrates the joy we feel as the recipient of this luminosity and the many boons that it creates.
For more on gnosis, see The heart of the Matter.
Such is human nature, and what Martin Heidegger called the “fallenness into the world”, that the sublime always has the tendency to degenerate into the mundane, and further into the ridiculous. The treasure of the Kingdom is so great, so luminously expansive, that one feels disheartened by its fall into the stress of the commercial feast that Christmas has become. Recently I saw the season described as “the Nuremburg rally of capitalist consumerism”. The Fuehrer of this rally is not the living Christ.
So let us return to the meaning of the Christmas tree. Follow the signs. When the tree of life within becomes illu
minated, your reality and all that you know of it becomes luminous. The things and happenings of your world are no longer things in themselves with their own mundane reality: instead, they reflect the infinite radiance which is your source. In a word, your essentially divine being becomes luminous as the tree of life, ornamenting the world and generating the transcendent compassion to give.
Sometimes the illumined Gnostics from other traditions can express the Kingdom in a way that captures the enormity that may be lost to us in our own cultural imagery. In case my description of the Christmas tree has escaped you, here is Jelaludin Rumi, the great Sufi poet, expressing the giddy expansiveness of gnosis and the luminous giving of the heart that it inspires.
Throw off your tiredness. Let me show you one tiny spot of the beauty that cannot be spoken. I’m like an ant that’s gotten into the granary, ludicrously happy and trying to lug out a grain that’s way too big.
Merry Christmas! May you see in every Christmas tree the fullness of your own heart.
NASA The Christmas Tree Cluster