Christmas: the Truth Beneath the Tinsel and Commercialism
by Elbert Benjamine
In astrological symbolism it is usually the Sun and its position and movement that carry the message. And the legends about the various ancient heroes, all the religious and national holidays, are almost always associated in this manner with the sun. Thus, when Mithraism, the dominant religion in Rome about 60 BC, then held that Mithra, the god of light, was born in a cave on Christmas day, we look to the position of the sun at that time to discern the significance of the statement. And we find that on Christmas day the sun is in an earthy sign, Capricorn, which it has entered some three days earlier, when it is as low in declination as it ever gets. But on Christmas day, while still in the cave of Capricorn, it is moving toward the light, decreasing in declination, and thus a new dispensation of sunshine and warmth is born.
Christmas is a holiday to celebrate the turning point where the sun no longer moves southward in declination, but has begun to move northward promising more abundant light and the heat necessary for the crops of another year. And it’s also a holiday of spiritual significance; for this light of the sun has always been considered the most fitting emblem of information and spiritual illumination, and its heat the comforting power of divine protection.
The power of light reigns supreme at the summer solstice when the Sun enters the zodiacal sign Cancer. Stonehenge, in the County of Wiltshire in England, is supposed by archaeologists to have been built about four thousand years ago. (Radiocarbon dating in 2008 suggested the first stones were erected 2400-2200 BC.) And people now visit Stonehenge on mid-summer day to watch the sunrise at the summer solstice exactly over what is called the ‘Hele Stone’. But the power of light is dimmed and at its weakest at the winter solstice point when the Sun enters the zodiacal sign Capricorn, some three days before Christmas.
The Sun's declination on December 22 is 23S26 – that’s its farthest distance from the Earth – and on December 24 its declination is 23S24. So for several days at this solstitial point the Sun is stationary having no apparent north or south motion. (It’s not always exactly three days, but the approximate time of three days has other mystical significance relating to body, soul and spirit; as in the story of the gifts of the three Wise Men of the East.) But having reached the turning point on December 22 the Sun on December 25 has begun its northward movement. At the winter solstice the power of darkness is defeated, the stone of the tomb of winter is rolled away, the nights cease growing longer, and there is gift giving and rejoicing. Thus the custom in various lands has been to celebrate the 'turning back of the sun', three days after the solstice when the noon shadow of the marking stake could be discerned to be starting to shorten.
This day was easy to ascertain – you don’t need sophisticated gadgetry – for at noon on the day of the solstice a stake driven into the ground, or a tree, would cast its longest shadow. Therefore, by tracing in the snow or dust the movements of the tip of the shadow for several consecutive days about that time, and observing when the crescent of the moving shadow was farthest north of the tree or stake near noon, the day of the winter solstice, and the beginning of the calendar year, could be easily established. It constitutes a natural starting point for recording time and astronomical phenomena far better than our first day of January, which is some nine or ten days after the winter solstice.
In various regions of the Old World Christmas was celebrated long before it was designated a religious holiday by Christianity. And in the New World the Maya, the Aztecs and the Indians of the Southwestern United States staged ceremonies in its honor long before the White Man landed on these shores. In fact, the winter solstice (usually December 22) when the Sun reaches its farthest declination south was the commencement of the calendar for these people.
At the winter solstice three days before Christmas, the sun passes from Sagittarius, the Archer, to its lowest position in the tomb of winter, at the commencement of Capricorn. The nights are longest then, and the earth is captive, bound by frost in the hands of the evil forces of the underworld, where she can bring forth no fruit. To indicate this the Hopi Indians of America kidnap a maiden and take her beneath the earth (Capricorn) where initiates are assembled in the kiva.
Then there occurs the ceremony of calling back the sun, in which there is struggle with the forces of darkness, after which there is victory for the Brethren of Light, and the kidnapped maiden is released, and symbolically fertility is restored to the earth. In this Hopi ceremony ears of corn and seeds of such other things as the Indians hope to harvest are placed before the feathered serpent alter. And at Christmas time we adorn a tree with presents to indicate the fruits of the branch held in the hand of Hercules, picturing the middle decanate of the harvest sign Virgo, in anticipation of the harvest which will follow this turning back of the Sun.
According to the Christian legend – no one made any inquiry of the date of birth of Jesus until 580 years after the approximate date he was born – Jesus was born in a manger. And on Christmas day the sun has just moved a few degrees into the sign of the goat (Capricorn) from the sign of the horse (Sagittarius). Giving three days grace after December 22 insures that on Christmas day the sun will be moving northward in declination, and that the days will have started to get longer. They will thus continue to lengthen until June 22, when the sun reaches the topmost point of the home sign, Cancer, the place where it is located when at Stonehenge it rises exactly over the ‘Hele Stone.’
The topmost part of a home is commonly the chimney. Therefore, the Sun, in coming to the home from the place where Jupiter brings his gifts on the line dividing Sagittarius and Capricorn in winter must touch it first at the highest spot, the chimney. And to reach it, he of course comes through the air. You will search the Bible in vain for any mention of Christmas tree or Santa Clause. Santa Clause, like the two horsemen in the sky, one of which relates to the time of winter's cold and the other to the heat of summer, portrays two seasons of the year. His garb is chiefly red; for as representing the constellated Centaur he is next to the fiery furnace, Crater, where the heat glows fiercest. Yet also to denote the snow of winter, the trimming of the garb is spotless white.
The gifts he brings at Christmas time are tokens of still greater gifts to come; they are the promise that abundance will follow after the time of winter dearth, when the heat from the sun will have had time to ripen crops again. Still ahead, even though the days have started in their lengthening, is a period of privation and cold. Stored supplies may become exhausted giving rise to dark despair; yet even at the entrance of this period does he give promise of better days to come.
But whatever the true significance of a holiday may be, those who celebrate it tend to warp it into the patterns of their own strongest desires. There are some, for instance, who use Christmas and Thanksgiving as an excuse for getting drunk; yet certainly the Pilgrim fathers who gave thanks for safety and sustenance would not have countenanced drinking to excess, nor is there anything which I can discern in the beginning of the return of light and warmth to a bleak and crop-barren earth which justifies people gorging themselves with food. If they do these things, it is not in celebration of these holidays, but because the holidays give them an excuse to satisfy such desires.
Christmas occurs at the time of the year when the light of the Sun, representing both intelligence and spiritual illumination, is weakest. And if you look around the world today you will find civil wars, ethnic hatred and repressive regimes which try to suppress liberty of consciousness. Each molds spiritual aspiration, which could express through religion, into a barbaric pattern. In some countries where dictators are fattening themselves on the spoils taken from unpopular minorities, the true cultivation of intelligence is forbidden. The people are permitted access to such information as those in positions of power wish them to have. (In many parts of the Middle East – Iran and Syria – and in some Sub-Saharan countries – Zambia, Niger and Sierra Leone – censorship oppresses the free flow of information. The Arab Spring saw the press in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt become partly free. Journalism remains a dangerous occupation with journalists often killed or imprisoned.) The restrictive, selfish, crystallizing side of Saturn's sign Capricorn, where the Sun holds forth on Christmas, has a dominant influence in these and many other countries on the globe.
Even in America we have our Saturn and Lower-Pluto (work, poverty and insecurity) problems. Thank God the light is not dim in this country. In America we are still permitted to seek spiritual satisfaction and intellectual illumination in our own way. But even though many people experience the warmth of fortunate economic conditions there are still millions of people, able and willing to work, who cannot find employment. (In 2012 there are 12 million Americans unemployed and 3 billion people around the globe live on less than $2.50 a day. Over 1 billion live in extreme poverty – that’s less than $1 a day. 22,000 children die each day from poverty. Source: Global Issues, The Human Development Report.)
The recording of these world and national facts is not to focus on gloom and pessimism. The recognizing that the world, and even these United States, is at the bottom rung of the cycle is in strict harmony with the true significance of Christmas. In the Bible story, it represents the time when Herod (Saturn) was in power and sought the life of the newborn infant. It recognizes that a period of dearth is yet ahead before a new crop can be planted. Spring is not yet here. There are many hardships ahead, and their seriousness should not be minimized.
Christmas signifies all this; but in addition, now that things seem at their darkest, it also holds forth the promise of a better time to come. There will be dangers to be escaped, even as in the Bible story the child was taken to Egypt that it might not be slain. Those having its custody did not remain idle, to await the wrath of Herod. Energetically they did that which would insure protection. And we who hold custody of the Religion of the Stars, the light which will illuminate the world of tomorrow, must not permit sloth or negligence to prevent us from preserving it and assisting in its growth.
In the Bible story the Wise Men of the East brought presents of three different kinds – Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh; and we, the members of the Church of Light, are the modern representatives of these Wise Men. It is from these Wise Men that we derive our teachings. And like them we should have presents of three different kinds to distribute. But we, in the true spirit of Christmas, should give them in the measure that we can, to one and all. Gold, of course, is a symbol of things spiritual. Surely we can pass on to others the spiritual benefits we already possess, and thus give them a glimpse of the still greater spiritual gifts they can receive if they also devote their lives to Contributing their Utmost to Universal Welfare. The other two gifts, frankincense and myrrh, are the symbols of intellectual things (thoughts and ideas) and those things that are purely physical.
Within the Brotherhood of Light lessons are recorded facts and the expanded principles which, when understood, will benefit the life of any person. These thoughts when given to others are valuable presents. And now, with widespread physical suffering often due to illness and poverty, and psychological suffering due to fear, anxiety and economic uncertainty there is ample opportunity everywhere to minister to the physical and psychological needs of others. It may be a basket of food to a family which is hungry, it may be clothing to one who is cold and ill-clad, it may be a healing thought to one who is ill, or a friendly smile to one who is downcast and unhappy; and these helpful actions are gifts of the nature of myrrh.
So if you desire to celebrate Christmas in its true spirit, speak of the better things to come, the new harvest of blessings for the Earth that will surely arrive if each of us will plant the seed and tend it industriously. Such is the significance of the conventional lighted tree. And like the other Wise Men of tradition, see that presents are given. Give to those in need. And while you will naturally tend to give gifts and things of the nature of physical myrrh, don't forget to give your intellectual frankincense, and your spiritual gold. For today, as never before, each and every one of us has the need to express this true spirit of Christmas.
(This commentary combines two articles written by Elbert Benjamine – We Should Celebrate Christmas and This Yuletide is Highly Important – that were published in the December 1938 and November 1949 editions of The Rising Star. The ‘world and national facts’ he documented at the time have been updated. —DW Sutton.)