While I’m writing this, we’re half-way through December and the Spirit of Christmas is at hand! But what is the Spirit of Christmas? What does it mean that it is at hand? Can we impact it – make it grow or shrink perhaps? Can we participate with it in some manner? What are the essential differences between participating with a good spirit, such as the Spirit of Christmas and with a dark spirit, such as the spirit of Avarice? We will start this article by exploring the nature of the Spirit of Christmas and its marque symbols – Santa Claus, the Christmas Tree, and the Nativity, as well as its symbolic accessories – candles, stockings, cookies and milk, lights, and evergreen wreaths. From there we will extrapolate the thought further and consider the nature of Angels and Demons, or principalities of light as compared to principalities of darkness. (For an exploration on the topic of what a principality is, please consider reviewing Johnathan Pageau’s work on the subject).1 We will finish by probing ways in which we might consider hosting and manifesting those spirits.
What is the spirit of Christmas?
We must first consider what a spirit is; a spirit is a particular combination of goals and values which presents itself in a pattern. This combination of goals and values (or affections) can be manifested by a person, but also within the arrangement of a physical space or a larger pattern within a group of people or other creatures. In addition, when you come in contact with a person or space that is manifesting a spirit (or you yourself are manifesting a spirit) there is often a response that is elicited within yourself. Your spirit (your own goals and values; self) responds to the spirit you encounter. This response may include emotions (such as fear, wonder, etc.), but is often described in relational terms. These spirits may elicit a sense of resonance (“Deep calls to deep2”), of being overtaken, oppressed, possessed, welcomed, appreciated, honored, or protected among others.
What then are the goals, values, and patterns of the Spirit of Christmas? This question may elicit a variety of responses as there are many Spirits which have attempted to masquerade as the Spirit of Christmas. Front of the list in North American society is the Spirit of Avarice, a commercial Christmas whose greatest goal is the getting of things. Children and corporations alike are encouraged to see this as a season of Getting. The quality of a Christmas is measured against how many more dollars you have on the bottom line or how many more toys are stacked against the wall. Another spirit which pretends to be the Spirit of Christmas is that of Tradition. This spirit is concerned with doing what has always been done. Often, this Spirit has started out as the Spirit of Christmas but was exchanged years, if not generations, ago for a new spirit. It is in this Spirit that people attend Mass for the second time of the year (and tune out 95% of what is said), send a card to a previously ignored aunt, and give the same gift to everyone on their list. The specific actions are good: attending services, sending cards and gifts all belong in the Spirit of Christmas, but it is the goals and values which undergird these actions which manifest a different sort of Spirit. I have called it the Spirit of Tradition, but it could as easily be called the Spirit of Not Getting in Trouble for Stuff I Don’t Care About or the Spirit of Acedia.
There are several other spirits which can slip in as Christmas approaches. Rather than masquerading as the Spirit of Christmas, these run in its face and deny the value of Christmas. The Spirit of Despair is the loudest among these spirits. Despair says You are all alone. No one loves you and no one cares about the gifts you give. Jack died five years ago and now there’s no joy or hope to be had. You’ve done shameful things that people don’t know about – if they knew they wouldn’t want you here. Or, perhaps, Those people know what you did and they don’t want you here. You’ve only been invited because of the Spirit of Tradition, not in the Spirit of Christmas. You don’t deserve to be a part of Christmas.
The Spirit of Pride waits in the wings as a second dark voice. Who cares about Aunt Olive’s fruit cake? It’s gross anyways. You don’t need these stupid gifts- the trip here cost more than what you’re getting. You could buy yourself a better sweater than this. You don’t even like sweaters. All these people are stupid anyways. They don’t care about the right stuff, read the right articles, support the right politicians or…. The list goes on, but this Spirit says you don’t need Christmas. You’re above it. It has nothing of value to offer.
I submit that the true Spirit of Christmas is three-fold. It is first a Spirit of Generosity/Charity which is combined with one of Hope/Faith, and finally is seasoned with the explosive union of the Savouring of Life within the Darkest Hour. These essential elements lay themselves out in patterns within the marque symbols of Christmas – Santa Claus, the Christmas Tree, and the Nativity. Certainly, this is a personal summary of how the Spirit of Christmas appears to me, but I would be more than happy to hear other perspectives in the comments section below.
Santa Claus, or Father Christmas, often represents the Spirit of Christmas, but in the way that a mascot represents team spirit. The feeling of team spirit is pride in my team, joy in unity, unity with the thousands of other fans, and the drive we feel is to win, to dominate and to conquer. Each team tends to have a different flavor. The Boston Bruins team spirit seems, to me, to be one that is a little more brutal. Happy to walk away with a win, but even happier to walk away with a win if a few teeth are left on the ice. The Toronto Maple Leafs, on the other hand, have a somewhat more desperate, defiant and surly team spirit. There are different flavours to teams, even if all of them have the same goals. Nevertheless, no one would confuse the spirit of the team that they feel when they are in the stadium with the mascot: a man dressed up in a costume. The image of the mascot is meant to be a physical manifestation of the spirit which is felt by fans, but no one would confuse the two. If you are jumping out of your seat, shouting joyfully over a last-minute score you are feeling a lot of team spirit, but no one imagines that they are physically touching the mascot. The reality of those things are equally tangible, but are felt on different levels of existence. One is spiritual and one is physical. Likewise, with Santa Claus, he is associated with the Spirit of Christmas without being that spirit himself. 3 So, why Santa Claus? What makes him an appropriate mascot for the Spirit of Christmas?
First of all, Santa is a fat old man who lives in the North Pole. These details matter because they pair together abundance and the dark cold of deep winter. Christmas takes place at the edges of warmth and light, from the perspective of our annual cycles. It is the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, the shortest day of the year. Of course, this is a different day every year, but it occurs around the same week every year. It is significant that Santa heralds joy, zest for life and plenty while residing in the darkest and coldest place on earth, arriving on the shortest day of the year. In Germany, this season was historically celebrated as Yuletide and has been a festive time for many cultures around the world. I am a Canadian and there have been many winter days that I went to work before the sun was up and came home after the sun set. This wasn’t because I was working multiple jobs, but simply that there were so few hours of daylight that they expired during a normal 8-hour workday. Santa’s joy and generosity are all the more striking because he lives in a dark and desolate land.
Second, Santa is happy and he wants you to be happy too. “Ho, Ho, Ho! Merry Christmas!” Santa embodies a zest for life, enjoying food, little children and surprises. Santa takes joy in being generous and plans all year for how he can give as many gifts to as many people as possible. This vim is an essential part of embracing the spirit of the season. If you miss the fact that Santa is happy (and you should be happy) then you move over to a space which is more reserved and an exercise in tradition. You aren’t really delighting in the joy of giving. You aren’t really receiving gifts with gratitude. You aren’t participating in the Spirit.
Third, Santa is not the Spirit of Christmas but is more like the guide or the herald to the Spirit itself. Everyone knows that the Joy of Christmas is not found in seeing Santa, or in having him give you presents. Rather, Santa ushers us toward the experience itself. In pictures of Christmas the image that often represents the Spirit of Christmas is the warmly lit living room. It is the space that is prepared for generosity and the anticipated delight over giving and receiving, fellowship and common peace. No one sits around on Christmas morning waiting to hug Santa Claus. He is the herald, not the Spirit. He leads us through rituals which help us to manifest and host the Spirit of Christmas together. Let’s walk through these rituals and consider their function.
1: We hang stockings for Santa to fill.
By hanging up stockings we prepare ourselves to receive. Often half the battle when giving a gift is helping the recipient take on a stance of being willing to accept what we would like to offer them. Receiving a gift requires humility and trust. We must accept that the gift will not be used to manipulate or harm us. As we hang our stockings we indicate hope that a gift will be given, our desire to receive the gift and faith that the gift won’t be a snake in the bottom of our stocking.
It is also formative that we hang up stockings to be filled with gifts, as opposed to golden, gem-encrusted urns. These days we make our stockings quite fancy, but throughout most of time (even when I was a child) we just found the biggest sock we owned and stuck it by the fireplace. We are training ourselves to look in the most common and humble of places for gifts. If we approach the average and unassuming aspects of our life with an attitude of expectation and anticipation we can trust that there are more gifts to be found in those humble spaces and moments than we had previously imagined.
2: We don’t look for Santa when he comes bearing gifts.
This Christmas rule offers us the lesson of faith. We are to trust and believe, rather than rely only on what our eyes tell us. If we look at Santa, we violate the Spirit of Christmas. It is like any moment of bliss; if you look directly at the moment it evaporates. When we turn our evaluative gaze onto a moment we are experiencing, we immediately move out of a state of participation and into a state of analysis. This metacognition almost universally destroys the participation. We commonly talk about this state of participation by using the word mindfulness, a term borrowed from Buddhism. For us to fully participate with the Spirit of Christmas we must consciously shun the evaluative gaze and must abandon ourselves to the participatory stance of faith and presence. This does not mean that there is no place for analysis (This entire article is an exercise in analysis!) or evaluation, only that when looking to participate in Christmas one must give oneself over to present experience and shun overt analysis for a time.
3: We leave cookies and milk for Santa.
Cookies and milk are a classic grain offering. This is an offering of thanksgiving and the first step into participation with the Spirit of Christmas. It is a sign of hospitality and welcome; we indicate our desire to host the Spirit of Christmas by welcoming its herald. This is somewhat like Abraham hosting the angels of God and preparing a feast for them4. To be sure, cookies and milk are a small token of a meal, but they are a token of the best of the earth (sweetened fine grain) and the best of the animals (fresh, purified milk).
4: We must be good if we want Santa to visit us.
Santa also plays the role of the boundary. Like the sword-bearing angel who kept Adam from reaching the tree of life after he fell, Santa keeps those who are not worthy hosts of the Spirit of Christmas from participating. There is a path to future participation (be kind to others and participate with other spirits of light) but until there has been some personal development the path is barred.
Where Santa Claus is the herald and mascot of Christmas, showing us how to participate with the Spirit of Christmas, the Christmas Tree serves as a symbol of both the gift of Life given to all mankind and the journey that gift entails.
The Christmas Tree
The Christmas tree is our modern version of the Tree of Life. This tree is represented among various ancient cultures (including those in Iran, Mesopotamia, Mesoamerica, North America, Europe and China) and major religions (including Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Paganism). An evergreen tree is used to represent this tree in the West as the culture was formed in an area that experiences all the seasons, as well as the fading of deciduous trees during the winter. Even in the darkest and coldest days of the year, evergreen trees will not lose their vitality.
This modern Tree of Life is closely related to the image of the Tree of Life as represented in the Israelite temple. That tree was also a candlestick, Menorah, and was covered in intricate carvings of fruit, flowers and branches which held up lights to illumine the inside of the temple. It was tall, made of gold and was both intricate and beautiful5. The Menorah was taken by Rome when they sacked Jerusalem and was memorialized in the Roman Arch of Titus, as seen below6.
Our modern Christmas Trees of Life are triangular, a shape reminiscent of a mountain, the connecting point between earth and heaven. The eye travels up the tree, following linked beads, garlands and lights to rest on the crown of the tree which is traditionally arrayed with a star or an angel (which are interchangeable, symbolically). This star/angel harkens to the star that led the wise men to the birthplace of Christ. It represents the Spirit of Life and Light. The tree is adorned with icons of aspects of our journey up the tree/mountain to eternal life. On my tree I have candles and lights which are points of illumination along the journey. Lemons, elves, gnomes, robots, mice, candy canes and snowflakes represent the difficulties encountered on the path. An Eskimo and a wild haired lumberjack represent the Stranger, those on the edges of what is expected in society. Pinecones, poinsettias, angels, stars, bells, and words (such as Joy, Peace, Love, Immanuel, etc.) all represent the blessings and truths which are received on the journey. At the base of the tree we find mysterious potential, gifts wrapped in mystery, not yet revealed. But, as they rest at the base of the tree of life and, if the stockings are any indication, we can anticipate that we will find blessings inside them, whatever form they take. (See Johnathan Pageau’s video on Christmas Trees for a further exploration of this theme7.)
Wreaths are tiny cousins to Christmas trees. They are circular, emphasizing the eternal nature of the green boughs they are typically made of. The circle represents the wheel of time, endlessly cycling. These wreaths are often adorned with poinsettias, stars, angels or lights – symbolically reinforcing the positive aspects of life and our journey. It is fitting in the Christmas season to condense the image of the tree down to an image of gratitude: the everlasting circle of time with celebrations of the blessings received during that time.
The Nativity is the key icon of Christmas for nearly all Christians. This icon presents Christ in a cave, held by his mother, beheld by shepherds, angels, and wisemen, flanked by an ox and an ass, all nestled beneath a great star. Joseph also typically makes an appearance, watching Mary and her babe from the side. At times there are variations to the image – the cave may become a stable, the angels may be left out, and sheep may get shoehorned in, trailing the shepherds. This image brings together many more themes than I could give appropriate attention to in this article. It gathers the ideas of death, birth, recreation, the joining of the center and the periphery, mana (sustaining bread from heaven which is given in the wilderness of life), and no doubt many more which I hope will be listed in the comments by engaged readers. An excellent exploration of most of these themes can be found in Johnathan Pageau’s videos, Christmas as the Anchor of Reality and Symbolism of Christmas:The Ox and the Ass8.
It is important to note that the Spirit of Christmas is not identical to the Spirit of Christ (the Holy Spirit). The Spirit of Christmas is found much more in the paired image of Mary and the Cave than in the image of Christ himself. To understand this we must, in some ways, put the cart before the horse and ask ourselves in what manner we participate with the Spirit of Christmas? We participate in the Spirit of Christmas by manifesting its nature: Hope, Faith, Generosity and Savouring of Life within the Darkest Hour. The spirit of Christmas is the call to host and celebrate the Christ Child, rather than a call to be the Christ Child. There is certainly a call in Christianity to emulate Christ, but that is not the emphasis here. This Spirit is receptive, responsive and strongly feminine.
The feminine (which, along with the masculine, exists in all people and is the dominant image for the Church) creates the space, the substance and the arena into which Being may manifest itself. The Spirit of Christmas is one that trusts – there is giving and receiving. It is generous. It brings together the outsider, the foreigner, the poorest and the wisest together in one embrace. This spirit is warm, willing to risk and give even in the most trying of conditions. For Mary to be willing to host Christ, was an incredible risk. She made herself vulnerable in her society and was willing to do that for her entire life (parenthood has no expiration date).
One may ask, “Is not the Spirit of Christ generous? Why is this not a celebration of that”?
It is! The Spirit of Christ is generous in coming down to Earth to be with mankind. He is Immanuel, God come down to be with us. But we participate as glad hosts, warm and receptive. The Spirit of Christmas is the Spirit that delights over and responds to the Spirit of Christ. We are generous in response to the generosity of God. We are to be the warm living-room, the generous embrace, the eternal wreath creating the space in which the gift may rest. This doesn’t mean that we spend Christmas celebrating ourselves, the cave, or Mary. Rather, we manifest the Spirit of Christmas in hosting and giving, which enables us to become the kind of vessels which are made fit to host the Spirit of Christ.
Participation with Spirits of Light
So, to return to our original question, how do we participate with a good Spirit, such as the Spirit of Christmas? We walk out the same patterns that are essential to the nature of that Spirit. We work to establish a physical space that expresses the pattern we hope to emulate and we work to establish those thoughts and behaviours which best emulate the pattern as well.
The pattern of spirits of light are in direct opposition to the pattern of dark spirits. In my article on Rumplestiltskin9 we saw that dark principalities promise to alter reality, or our perception of it, in exchange for life. These principalities cannot gain life on their own, so they strike bargains with us. Good spirits, on the other hand, tell us that we must live in light of reality and in exchange we receive life. The patterning of spirits of light are always a referential pattern: there is an underlying reality which the good spirit is patterning itself in response to. For example, the Spirit of Kindness works to care for others. This is a reflection of the reality that God is kind, that we ought to emulate the nature of God as image-bearers on earth, and that care for others is in the best interests of mankind, those we care for, and ourselves. When we are kind, we manifest the Spirit of Kindness, and align ourselves with the deeper truths of life. When we manifest this spirit and align ourselves with reality in this way, we are given Life.
Let us consider the Spirit of Christmas. What are the deeper truths to which we must respond and align ourselves? How might we create a physical space which evokes these patterns? What thoughts and behaviours might allow us to manifest this Spirit?
The deep realities which the Christmas Spirit responds to are right on the surface (which is what makes this Spirit such an excellent example). This spirit responds to God drawing near to mankind in love. This spirit says, You are loved! God wants to be close to you! God will bring light to the world! You are offered eternal life! You are not forgotten! You can be at peace!
How might we create a physical space which would respond to and host this reality? What has the previous physical pattern been which has hosted this spirit? In arranging the modern living room in preparation for Christmas we gather the elements needed to welcome the Spirit of Christ. We place the Christmas tree, lit brightly, on one side of the room. We bring in the cookies and milk. These elements echo those of the Israelite temple. In the Holy Place of the Temple the menorah was placed on one side of the room and the showbread (a grain offering of welcome and hospitality) was placed opposite. The only other piece of furniture in the room was a golden altar for burning incense10. Scripture tells us that burning incense represents the prayers of God’s people.
In enacting these patterns, we connect with a liminal space during a liminal time. (A liminal space is a place that exists on a threshold and a liminal time is similar. Equinoxes are peak liminal times and the home of God, as represented in the temple, is the pinnacle of liminal space.) Stepping into this pattern, by manifesting the hospitable Spirit of Christmas, we connect ourselves to all the spaces and times where this has been re-enacted. This is the pattern seen in creation, through the use of the temple, in the incarnation, and that which we will experience in the final union of heaven and earth (as pictured in St. John’s Revelation).
Our thoughts and behaviours should flow naturally in this space in response to the nearness and generosity of God. We ought to become generous, hopeful, kind, charitable, joyous and happy. We lose ourselves to the joy of the moment, feasting, celebrating, and rejoicing over the transcendent glories before us. We take steps of hope and faith, we are generous and extravagant in our charity, and we savour and enjoy life in the darkest of places. We pray, thank people, and are at peace. In these ways we receive the gift of Life.
I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and I hope you discover new ways to receive, celebrate and enjoy the Christ child: our Eternal Life.
- Pageau, Johnathan. Do Principalities have Will and Perception? September 2018. What Is The Holy Place of the Tabernacle? (learnreligions.com); Pageau, Johnathan. Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy Exist. July 2018. youtube.com. Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy Exist – YouTube; He has other various videos on the subject as well
- Psalm 42:7
- I will be exploring the modern cultural icon and mythos of Santa Claus, as opposed to Saint Nicholas of Myra or Santa as the Northern European Shaman. Though modern Santa Claus may have had his roots in St. Nicholas, the modern myth and icon are significantly different and will be the focus here. Likewise, there are many connections between Santa Claus and Northern European Shamanistic traditions, highlighting the magical aspects of Santa. The connection to both of these traditions is worth considering and exploring but extends beyond the scope of this article.
- Genesis 18
- Parsons, John. The Holy Menorah. hebrew4christians.com. A Closer Look at the Menorah (hebrew4christians.com)
- The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. Menorah. retrieved Dec 2020.Menorah | candelabrum | Britannica
- Pageau, Johnathan. Symbolism of the Christmas Tree. December 2008. Youtube.com. Symbolism of the Christmas Tree – YouTube
- Pageau, Johnathan, Christmas as the Anchor of Reality. July 2019. youtube.com, Christmas as The Anchor of Reality – YouTube ; Pageau, Johnathan. Symbolism of Christmas:The Ox and the Ass. Dec 2007. Thesymbolicworld.com. Symbolism of Christmas | The Ass and the Ox – The Symbolic World
- Wilson, Kathryn. Have you Made a Deal with the Devil? December 2020. thesymbolicworld.com Have you Made a Deal with the Devil? – The Symbolic World
- Zavada, Jack. The Holy Place of the Tabernacle. February 2019. learnreligions.com. What Is The Holy Place of the Tabernacle? (learnreligions.com)