From the Commercial to the Historical to the Mystical
In Medieval European paintings, symbolic and literal representations existed simultaneously. Sort of like this popular meme:
The original artist probably isn’t from the Middle Ages, but I share the graphic because it introduces the layers of meaning of Christmas in an artful, humorous way.
So what does Christmas mean to you? For me, different layers of meaning can both support and challenge traditional notions of the holiday — and ultimately, if you so allow, expand and enrich the way you experience it.
I’ll start with my own contemporary setting, then work backward to discuss the holiday’s historical context, and then finally return to the present to dive into what I think is its universal one.
Whether Christmas is about shopping and giving and being with family and friends, or about the historical birth of Jesus, or about its mystical significance, or about some of that or all of that, I think anyone, regardless of religious affiliation (or lack thereof), has an opportunity to experience the miracle of Christmas that is the newborn Christ.
Let’s unwrap the layers of Christmas…
A Masked Filipino Enters a Mall (Actually, Many Malls), and It’s Christmas!
I’m currently in the Philippines, so let me begin there.
In a few Filipino households, Christmas begins on August 31 and ends on August 30. Mom is either madly in love with the festive furnishings, which may rotate year-round like the seasonal exhibits of a museum, or she just couldn’t be bothered to take them down. But most other households, including mine, settle for a quarter of the year: October to January.
The same goes for malls. Christmas creeps in as the background carols mid-October, and then crashes the retail party full-force with towering trees and their arboreal bling come November.
This year, the popular malls of my hometown in Cagayan de Oro City were no exception. Sometimes I wonder if they secretly compete for the best Christmas display.
Between Centrio Mall, SM Downtown Premier, and Limketkai Center, I think it’s clear who boasted its premier status. One afternoon, I took a few slow moments to appreciate the tree up close, and then up high:
Because I was curious to see the pages! What was written on the pages! Excerpts from Dickens’ The Christmas Carol, perhaps? Or maybe that one famous poem that goes, “’Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house…” I kind of hoped to see a defiant rodent cleverly cozied up next to one of the deers.
But alas, no literary classic. Not even a mouse. What I saw in the tree’s foundation was poignantly symbolic of the social foundations that hold up much of the collective Christmas spirit today.
The Historical Origins of Christmas, A.D.
Before getting into the contents of what’s probably Cagayan de Oro’s largest book, I’d like to visit a more familiar book and backtrack a couple of millennia.
Only in the synoptic gospels of Luke and Matthew does the Bible offer a few relatively short passages about how Mary and Joseph settle in a barn in Bethlehem, and then how Mary gives birth to Jesus, the Son of God.
Interestingly enough, though, nowhere in the Bible is the word Christmas mentioned. The term, which is actually a contraction of “Christ’s Mass,” was first recorded during the Middle Ages roughly a thousand years after Jesus’ birth.
And come the 17th century, as Catholic-Protestant tensions swelled and religious reform exploded across Europe, Puritan forces overthrew England’s king and outlawed Christmas altogether. And when some Puritans became Pilgrims and settled in Colonial America, they outlawed it again!
Among their criticisms were the decadent festivities, often gluttonous and drunken, that accompanied the holiday. To Puritans, these revelries were grossly unholy. They knew that the Bible said nothing of putting up decorations, throwing wild parties, or exchanging gifts for Jesus’ birthday.
And perhaps the most scathing charge was the fact that nobody really knew when Jesus was born in the first place.
In fact, for the Early Church prior to the 4th century A.D., Jesus’ precise birthdate wasn’t too important. Many Christians, moreover, avoided birthday celebrations altogether, considering them idolatrous. Even the 3rd century A.D. Christian scholar Origen is quoted in The Catholic Encyclopedia as having said that “only sinners…make great rejoicings over the day on which they were born into this world.”
Additionally, in the Bible, only two birthday celebrations are mentioned, and both were violent:
- On Pharaoh’s birthday, he executed his baker (Genesis 40:20).
- On Herod’s birthday, he executed John the Baptist (Matthew 14:6).
For the Early Church, Jesus’ death and resurrection was the essential fact of the new religion — the proof of everlasting life. Everything else was secondary.
Well, when I first learned that December 25 probably wasn’t Jesus’ birthdate, I was surprised, to say the least. So, as a Roman Catholic, I quickly turned to various Catholic resources. Here’s what Catholic.com has to say:
The Pagan Origins of Christmas — B.C.?
“…chose December 25 due to its ancient origin”? Interesting. What ancient origin?
It’s true that numerous scholars of Christian history argue that December 25 was an unlikely date for Jesus’ birth.
Just one reason is a passage that immediately follows the account of Mary’s giving birth to Jesus: “And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night” (Luke 2:8). If it really was December 25 when Jesus was born, wouldn’t it have been too cold for shepherds and sheep to be out at night?
Whatever the case may be, it’s theorized that the Early Church chose December 25 to be Jesus’ birthday because that was already a significant date for pagan celebrations. So, they reasoned, why not adopt the date? Because if new religious converts could keep their newly Christianized festivities at the same time they formerly held pagan ones, the new and growing religion would be easier to embrace.
So, what were they originally celebrating? The sun and the promise of life.
In much of Europe, December 25 marked the Winter Solstice. This ushered in the time when, during the dark and frigid winter, nights finally started getting shorter and days longer. With more and more light, people could start going outside, planting crops, and harvesting again.
And how did they celebrate? It varied by region. Here are a few examples:
- In Nordic lands, pagans adored evergreens, the only trees that could endure the harrowing winter cold. So as part of their “Yule” celebration, they burned evergreen logs in their homes and partied indoors.
- In Germany, pagans paid homage to the god Odin. He was a terrifying figure, flying around at night and deciding who would enjoy a bountiful coming year and who would suffer.
- In Rome, where it wasn’t as cold, pagans took to the streets to celebrate the god of abundance, Saturn, and the Sun God Mithra. Feasting and drinking for one month was the standard.
But now, let’s fast-forward to the 4th century A.D. As Christianity spread throughout Europe, the Early Church finally decided that December 25 — when Roman pagans celebrated Mithra’s birth — would be the date to celebrate Jesus’ birth and the Feast of the Nativity. Church leaders knew that it wouldn’t be too big of a leap to go from celebrating the Sun God to celebrating the Son of God.
So how were pagan traditions Christianized? Yule logs, for a start, became Christmas trees decorated with red apples (symbols of the Garden of Eden) and prickly holly (symbols of Jesus’ crown of thorns). And Odin, as some speculate, morphed into the historical St. Nicholas, who would later become another night-flyer, Santa Claus.
Christmas in Modern Times
Gift-giving on Christmas is said to be an American invention. Some of the early colonists celebrated Christmas, and others, as I mentioned, banned it. The story of how Christmas gradually created a commercial empire in the U.S. and the world is long and complex, but for better or for worse, that’s where we are now.
St. Nicholas is mostly Santa Claus, and red apples are now red ornaments. And the reason for the season?
Well, here’s what a couple of paragraphs from SM Downtown Premier’s Christmas book have to say:
Christmas time is finally here. I can feel it in the air. Decorations and toys, the cute bears of joy. Fill me up with Christmas cheer. All the songs they play. They jingle all the way. For my most awaited SM Malliday!
It’s time for a Christmas to remember. Shopping, shopping, shopping in my favorite mall forever, hey! Happy SM Mallidays! Let’s make it a merry get-together, shopping, shopping, shopping in my favorite SM ever, hey! Happy SM Mallidays! SM Mallidays to you!
Am I saddened? No. I would have preferred something more nurturing to the soul, but I feel no dismay. Of course, I can respect other points of view, but I can also enjoy the decorations, gifts, and carols as much as the next person.
Maybe the sacred and the secular don’t have to be in competition. My opinion is that it’s entirely possible to enjoy tradition, regardless of its origins, while cleaving to the ideals in your heart.
I think these words from Penne Restad, a historian and author of a book on Christmas history, are insightful:
“People say that Christ has been lost in Christmas. Implicit in that is the idea that Christ had ever been totally at the center of Christmas. And as Christmas has been celebrated ever since it was instituted as the Feast of the Nativity, there has always been other ritual, other ceremony, other activity associated with Christmas, in addition to Christ.”
The Transcendent Christmas
It could be argued that the Early Church appropriated aspects of pagan culture and then rebranded it as “Christmas.” It could also be argued that commerce appropriated aspects of Christianity and then called it “The Season of Giving (aka Shopping).” For millennia, Christmas has evolved and been celebrated or condemned to different degrees and for different reasons.
All of these versions of Christmas depend on time and space: on era, geography, culture, and those who wielded power. Christmas is inextricably tied to all these external dimensions.
But at the heart of Christmas — you might call it its esoteric or mystical meaning — there’s an internal dimension that transcends time and space. A dimension where it doesn’t need to be December 25 or even the “Holiday Season” to be celebrated.
To enter that dimension, I think we need only to remember one thing…
Who Am I?
I remember learning in a religion class that part of what differentiates various denominations of a particular religion is the varying degrees of emphasis each denomination places on certain scriptures over others.
In Catholicism, I’m not sure how much emphasis is placed on humankind’s divine nature. I hear more about our “sinful nature” which, with all due respect, I have reservations about. (Maybe that’s for another post.) But I can’t recall a homily where the priest quoted Psalm 82:6 or John 10:34, where Jesus explicitly says, “Ye are gods.”
Perhaps it sounds almost heretical to say we are gods, but because Jesus said it, maybe I can get away with saying it here. And if it’s still too hard to stomach, maybe the scripture that says we’re “made in God’s image” (Genesis 1:27) would be more palatable. I’m no doctor of the Church, much less a scholar of Christianity, but I think they mean the same thing. Still, I acknowledge that the interpretation of these lines is hotly debated.
Exegesis aside, the notion of a certain divinity in humankind is foundational to the mystical meaning of Christmas. And what is this meaning? That at any given moment, we have the capacity to remember our divine nature and birth it into this world.
What’s in a Name?
Before I delve into Christic mysticism further, I’d like to briefly touch on the rich diversity by which Christmas is celebrated all over the world. One peculiarity in the Philippines, for example, is how Catholics attend the Holy Mass in the evening of Christmas Eve, and then partake of a “Noche Buena” feast come midnight.
Furthermore, even non-Christians, in their own way, celebrate the holiday. Perhaps not so much because they want to honor Jesus’ birth, but because they want to get together with loved ones, exchange gifts, or honor ancient rituals. My friend Ming, for instance, honors Yule. She performs various rituals to bless, cleanse, and protect her environment, and lights candles and a bonfire to celebrate light.
There’s also diversity in when Christmas is celebrated. For many Christian Orthodox Churches — such as those in Serbia, Russia, Ethiopia, and Ukraine — Christmas is celebrated on January 7.
Externally, Christmas is experienced by diverse peoples in diverse ways. Internally, however, I think Christmas is experienced by diverse peoples in a singular way. The name of that experience, though, varies across religions and traditions.
But, as William Shakespeare says in Romeo and Juliet, “What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
In our analogy, the fragrant rose is called by Christians the Mind of Christ, or the Christ Mind, or Christ Consciousness; or by Jews the Shekhinah; or by Buddhists the Buddha Mind; or by Hindus the Shakti.
As a quick aside, if you attend yoga classes or belong to some kind of Higher Consciousness community, or if you’ve visited India, you’ve probably uttered the Sanskrit greeting “namaste.” It translates as, “The divine in me salutes the divine in you.” That divine entity is traditionally called the Shakti in Hinduism, but I’ve never had an issue with Christianizing it to the Christ Mind. To me, they mean the same thing.
Because at the core of all the great world religions, beyond doctrine and dogma, I think we’re much more alike than different.
So whichever term we use — whether the Christ Mind or the Shekinah or the Buddha Mind or the Shakti or some other term — it’s the notion of a divine presence inherent in all of us. A being that, in its essence, is holy. Wholly innocent and wholly loving — just like Baby Jesus.
The Christ Mind
Because it’s Christmas season and because I’m most familiar with the Christian tradition, I’ll use Christian terminology.
What’s all this “mind” business, though? It has to do with our thoughts and which ones we allow into our consciousness.
And mind you, “allow” is the operative word. In A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle pointed out something I thought was particularly profound — that rarely do we ever think; instead, thinking is usually an involuntary process that just happens to us. Not because of us.
Still, as thoughts race through our heads, we have the capacity to choose which ones to keep and which ones to dismiss.
So how did Jesus think? Probably with forgiveness, with compassion, with pure love. Always. (Yes, in the Bible, Jesus sometimes got angry, but moral outrage is born out of love, not hate.)
Now, how do most of us think? Probably sometimes with love, other times with lovelessness, often without realizing it. Not unless our minds have been disciplined through consistent meditation or some sort of spiritual practice with a meditative component to it. Because that’s one of the goals of meditation: the ability to remain conscious of our thoughts and choose the ones that get to stay. The ones that get to color our worldview and work their way into our subconscious.
And choose we can. For God gave us free will and so how we think is up to us. Which thoughts we hold and which thoughts we release is up to us. But the option to think as Jesus did is forever available.
So at any given moment, we can allow God — whether through prayer or through meditation or just taking a second to remember Him — to impregnate the womb of our consciousness, that we might birth into this world the truth of who we are: the Mind of Christ expressed in the flesh as our most loving selves.
But experiencing the newborn Christ within takes work. Claiming our divine inheritance takes work. It demands that we purify our own hearts first.
In practical terms, what does that look like? It shouldn’t take any of us by surprise, and there’s nothing mystical about it. It’s the inner work of everyday life that we already know. The inner work that forces us to reckon with sometimes difficult questions like:
- Where have I been judgmental?
- Where have I cast blame?
- Where have I been manipulative?
- Where have I played the victim role?
- Where have I been cynical?
- Where have I not taken responsibility?
- Where have I used my challenges as a crutch?
- Where have I coddled my weaknesses?
- Where have I denied my strengths?
- Where have I made excuses?
- Where have I closed my heart?
Then we atone and, where possible, make amends. And only then can we remember our innocence and loving nature, the part of ourselves we sometimes forget because of the stressors in life that throw us off our center, that loving self, wherein lies the peace and the power of God.
And when we do remember our spiritual identity and invoke the Christ Mind, again in practical terms, what happens and what does that look like?
We’re calmer, less reactive, more collected, more understanding, more intelligent. And we’re led to the highest intelligence of all: the wisdom that leads us back to the heart, back to our loving nature.
In the Nativity scene, three kings — symbols of the powers of the material world — bowed down before the Christ.
Likewise, as we remember the divine image God fashioned us from, and as we inhabit our spiritual identities, the powers of our external circumstances cannot hold sway. For we dwell in the ultimate power that is the love of God.
The Eternal Christmas
In a recent article about Thanksgiving, I mentioned that many modern Native Americans, despite the holiday’s violent historical roots against their ancestors, choose to partake in the holiday festivities anyway. They celebrate the ideals of what Thanksgiving stands for.
Other Native Americans, choosing not to celebrate Thanksgiving, reason that you don’t need a yearly holiday to be thankful.
Well, I think there’s a similar line of thinking that can apply to Christmas.
Personally, I have no qualms about celebrating Christmas on December 25. No qualms about celebrating Jesus’ birth to begin with. I think it’s a beautiful thing. But it doesn’t need to be remembered or celebrated only once a year. Every day and every moment presents an opportunity to celebrate the newborn Christ innate within us all.
By choosing not to judge but to bless.
Not to condemn but to forgive.
Not to fear but to love.
And through the Mind of Christ, we don’t have to lament the seeming loss of “the meaning of Christmas.” That’s a perceptual choice we make — whether we rest our gaze on the outer world or the inner one.
We don’t have to lament how the season appears to be predominantly about shopping and decorating. Those are but external “realities.” And none of us can presume to know the narrative of a celebrant’s heart:
- Whether they shop for themselves because they think they’re all who matter, or whether they shop for others as an expression of love.
- Whether they decorate as a display of status, or whether they decorate as a way to welcome.
And that’s how I think about the way these malls have commercialized Christmas. The giant trees and festive ornaments are very welcoming — to Christians and non-Christians alike! They can help anyone get into the shopping or the giving mood. How we see it, with judgment or with blessing, is our choice.
But I think that in only one of them — the loving option — can we truly experience the mystical meaning of Christmas. At any moment we choose to love, we welcome the birth of our divine, loving nature.
And love is certainly something to celebrate every single day, year-round, from August 31 to August 30.