Christmas and Epiphany
The choice of the dates
The Nativity celebration obliterated the feast of Mithras, the Saviour, God of mysterious ancient religions from Persia. Known as the
Unconquered Sun (“Sol invictus”), he was born on 25th December, celebration day of the Sun's rebirth (“Natalis solis”) after the winter solstice. Indeed, the winter solstice corresponds to the end of the descending phase of the sun in direction of the south celestial pole and to the beginning of the ascending phase towards the north celestial pole (Consult the description of celestial sphere for more details). Or, more mundanely, the winter solstice corresponds to the end of decreasing days and to the start of their increasing length. In other words, the winter solstice and its celebration symbolizes the end of the descent into the darkness, synonym of ignorance, and the beginning of the ascent towards Light, the clear Knowledge.
The veneration of Mithras migrated from Persia to Rome and then to Gaul before extending to the whole Mediterranean basin where it offended the new born Christianity. So, when Christianity became an official religion of the Empire during the 4th century, 25th December was observed as Jesus' birth celebration. In fact, the Nativity commemoration takes place during the Christmas service, i.e. on 24th December at midnight to really emphasize, within the day cycle, the passage between the end of the descent phase into the night darkness and the beginning of way back to day light.
After Pope Gregory XIII's calendar overhaul, the Eastern Orthodox Christians continued to use the Julian calendar to fix the religious celebration dates. Therefore, Christmas is still commemorated on 25th December of the Julian calendar in these countries, which corresponds to day to 7th January of Gregorian calendar. It was not always the case. In the 19th century, for instance, the Orthodox Christmas coincided with the Epiphany celebration (from “epiphania” or arrival) of the Roman church, which takes place on the 6th January of the Gregorian calendar. A commemoration of great importance, particularly in the East, which is devoted to the three Wise men worship.
January (“januarius”) designation, the month which opens the year, comes from the name of the Roman God Janus (from “janua” meaning gate). As the God of passage from one year to another, from a cycle to another and, more generally, from a state to another, he is usually represented by a double face, one looking to the past, the other to the future. However, between the past which is no more and the future which is not yet, there only room for the imperceptible present. A present beyond the temporal order, where the succession is changed into simultaneity, where everything rejoins the undying, the eternity. Therefore, the true face of Janus related to the eternal present is invisible. “Master of the triple time”, Janus is firstly the “Lord of eternity”. Similarly, the Christ is the beginning and the end (of time: “I am the alpha and the omega, the principle and the end”), but above all the “Master of the eternal”.
Janus, as the guard of the annual cycle gates, is represented with two keys, its main attributes. These gates are nothing else than the solstitial gates giving access to both sun phases. The golden key opens or closes the ascent way towards light or spiritual knowledge; the silver key (or sceptre) opens or closes the descent way into darkness or (spiritual) ignorance. For more details, see the two Saint John's celebrations.
The faces, covered with a unique crown, refer not only to the “Master of the triple time”, but also to the King of the three worlds associated with three births: physical of the ordinary being, psychical of the real human being (silver key) and spiritual of the totally accomplished being (golden key). These three worlds (physical or body, psychical or soul, spiritual or Spirit) are states, the achievement of which brings the being to its full realization. The last two births correspond to the initiation to the “mysteries” in connection with the solstices. The “little mysteries”, associated with the summer solstice, give access to the human state being and the “great mysteries”, related to the winter solstice, end up with the realization of the total being.
In the Christian tradition, both silver and golden keys are respectively associated with “terrestrial Heaven” and “celestial Heaven”. The three crown papal tiara as well as the golden and silver keys on the flag of Vatican constitute anyway emblems of the Supreme Pontiff, clearly recalling Janus symbolism.
The tradition of rites of passage was taken up by the Christian church regarding the fixation of the date of Christmas (on 25th December) and Epiphany or Twelfth Night (on 6th January). Indeed, the 12 days separating both celebrations revive, in condensed form, the 12 months of the annual cycle. The gate guard is standing exactly in the middle of this period (midnight of 31st December), a place from where he can see, simultaneously and equally, the previous and new year.
As the God of passage from darkness to Light as well as the “Master of the three worlds” (physical, psychical and spiritual), Janus remains as backdrop of Christmas and Epiphany celebrations and habits attached to. Janus tradition may be found within the customs of the Christmas tree and log on one hand and through the present offering and Epiphany cake on the other hand.
The candles of the evergreen tree and the log in the chimney, which
are usually only lit at midnight, constitute obviously light symbols in connection with the winter solstice.
The Christmas tree and log
The Christmas tree
During a period where ordinarily nature is resting before coming back in spring, the evergreen tree symbolizes another nature, the spiritual nature, always present beyond the season cycle or the death and re-birth cycles of the beings in different states. From this point of view, it recalls the Life tree of various traditions, particularly Nordic, whose terrestrial roots are related to celestial branches through the common trunk. The trunk symbolizes the “World Axis” connecting all being states, all multiple ways used to link Earth to Heaven. The many candle-spangled branches represent as many states, degrees to be achieved while wending along the garlands before reaching the peak. The star topping the crest of the tree is nothing but the ultimate degree symbolizing the north celestial pole or polar star in the Northern hemisphere. This motionless pole, around which the stars of the cosmic world are apparently turning, depicts the immutable Principle where everything is coming from and going back to: “the alpha and the omega, the Principle and the end”. By the way, does the candle illumination not recall the glittering of the stars of the celestial vault turning around the polar star while we are moving around the tree?
An old Scandinavian custom said that a spruce had to be suspended upside down inside the house. This reversed image of the current tree vision corresponds symbolically to a cosmic or terrestrial point of view where the individual perceives its true roots in Heaven. In fact, the being manifestation is a result of the celestial influence or Spirit descending into the body or the terrestrial world. Finding its spiritual roots consists in going back on one's steps from the terrestrial roots to the tree summit. Therefore, it causes a reversal vision. Putting the tree the right side up pictures the sun reversal move at the winter solstice passage. Then, the being discovers the supra-cosmic or celestial vision where the tree is standing from foot to head and the star finding its right place at the height of Heaven. The cosmic or terrestrial point of view is as it were the reflection of the supra-cosmic or celestial point of view in the water mirror separating both worlds.
The Christmas tree custom has probably a Scandinavian and, more recently, German origin. It spread afterwards in Alsace and Lorraine before extending to whole France. Its adoption in English lands was due merely to the fact that Queen Victoria married a German prince subject to nostalgia when the ending year celebrations were approaching.
The Christmas log
A section of a tree cut in summer to be burnt in winter, the Christmas log is an igneous symbol, source of light and heat. It is not a question of outer light which lights only appearances, but of inner light guiding the being towards superior states, the tree summit and the ultimate reality. A light finding its source within the heart, the heat of which is allowing a direct access to the spiritual or divine knowledge. A knowledge beyond the discursive thought, only source of light without heat.
The Christmas log is indisputably a symbol related to both solstices as testified by a Celtic custom. The log was lit with a brand coming from Saint John's day fire of the preceding summer. This custom refers to the initiation rites of the Janus tradition. Indeed, before achieving the enlightened or supra-human state depicted by the being at the centre of the world(s), it is necessary to first reach the human state of the being centred within himself. A state which will be used as a divine spark to light the log and allow the access to the true divine or spiritual state.
The re-cognition of the Christ's descent on Earth is symbolized by the coming of the three Wise men popularized by the custom of present offering and Epiphany cake, the meaning of which has been forgotten a long time ago.
The wise men worship and the Epiphany cake
The Wise men worship
The Wise men legend was probably brought back from the East by the Crusaders. Guided by an inner light symbolized by the Christmas tree star or the burning log, they reached the cave where Jesus was born. The cave represents the cosmic cave or envelope of the germ of Christ. The Wise men see in him the new born being, or better re-born, who has come out the cave darkness and reached the ultimate degree of (spiritual) knowledge, the state of the Being who has become Light.
They venerate in him the being three times born. The first is offering gold to the “King-child”; the second gives incense to the “Priest”; the third is presenting myrtle, the “immortality balm”, to the “Prophet”. These presents are symbols in relation to the three worlds: body, King's domain; psyche or soul, Priest's domain; Spirit, Prophet's domain.
The Wise men salute the Christ-king and recognize in him the “Master of the three worlds”. The “spiritual Master” or the “Prophet” holds the power of the two other functions (sacerdotal and royal), considered in their primeval Unity and manifested separately into the “Priest” and “King”.
The three characters are usually standing in front of the crib, a Nativity representation very popular in Southern countries. They came to pay homage to the Jesus child lying between the donkey and the bull, darkness and light of which he has realized the union. Indeed, obscurity and light are not dissociable as there is no brightness without darkness, day without night, yang without yin and yin without yang as shown by the entanglement of black and white within the famous yin-yang symbol. Knowing the light does not mean ignoring obscurity, but understanding that, beyond the duality of the manifested world, unity rules as the only real source of spirituality.
The custom of giving gifts at Epiphany, notably in Southern
Christian countries, is obviously related to the three Wise men paying homage to the “Master of the eternal present”. This custom is nothing but a remainder of the recognition of the innocence of the young child heart and its ability to live the present. A capacity that the grownup has unfortunately lost.
The Epiphany cake
The Twelfth Night cake, made of a flaky pastry, symbolizes the multiple layers to be discovered before reaching the charm or the almond. This drupe, the envelope of which has to be broken, represents the germ hidden inside the outer shell. It symbolizes the Christ whose divine nature is hidden under his human nature, the fruit to be opened by anyone to nourish himself. All are not chosen during this quest. Only the one, who succeeds in discovering all the layers hiding the fruit, will be able to emerge from obscurity, darkness and attain the full light.
In Hebrew, the almond is called “luz”, which perfectly expresses the idea of something hidden, enveloped, inviolable, the kernel containing the germ of immortality. The same word is also the name of an underground city keeping the tradition and close to which, Jacob had his famous vision. Asleep, the head lying on a stone, he sees a ladder erected between Earth and the Heavens, where divine messengers climbed up and down. The Lord tells him: “I will give the ground on which you are lying, to you and your lineage”. Jacob woke up and said: “And this stone I have put up as a pillar will be the house of God (“Beith-el”), designation of which the Christ's birth place, Bethlehem, is said to be derived from.
The almond tree, which grows mostly in Mediterranean countries, produces a fruit called “mandorla” in Italian. This word is applied to the “oval” form which, in the iconographic tradition, contains the Christ image. Above the royal portal of Chartres cathedral stand three beautiful lancets lit by the sunset. The central stained-glass window holds at the top a mandorla where the Christ sits on his mother knees. Mary wears a crown on her head and a sceptre in each hand as a sign of sovereignty of the darkness and light worlds. Christ, standing in the middle, represents the union of both worlds within the One or God. His right hand points in direction of South, of the Sun, of light whereas the left, related to North, lies on his knee.
This representation refers with no doubt to the initiation to “mysteries”. With a noticeable difference however. Within the mandorla, light is naturally associated with South and darkness to North whereas the “great mysteries” are related to winter solstice and “little mysteries” to summer solstice. In fact, the faithful looking at the mandorla follows the cosmic or terrestrial point of view shown by the Christ's right hand oriented towards South, the noon sun of the “little mysteries”. For him however, left and right are reversed. The continuation on the ascent path goes through a vision inversion to discover the true sun, the invisible face, the midnight sun of the “great mysteries” associated with North. During this quest, the faithful will have to abandon the outer light for the inner or invisible light. The visible light represents only a reflection of the invisible one into the mirror of the crepuscular waters of the sunset. This vision inversion is common in symbolism where “what is up (in the supra-cosmic order) is like what is down (in the cosmic order).
- René Guénon:
- “Symbols of Sacred Science”, Sophia Perennis Publisher 2004;
- Notably the chapter 37 devoted to the solstitial symbolism of Janus.
- “The King of the World”, Sophia Perennis Publisher;
- In particular chapter 4 related to the three supreme functions and chapter 7 dedicated to Luz.
- Jean-Marie Pelt:
- “Fruit”. Fayard Publisher,1994;
- Especially, chapter 9 devoted to dried fruit and, in particular, to the almond.
- “Flowers, feasts and seasons”. Fayard Publisher,1988;
- In particular, chapters related to Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Sylvester.