That special time of year has finally arrived when many of us erect the Christmas tree in our homes.
There is something magical about the arrival of the tree each year, with its wonderful evergreen smell and the nostalgic connection to memories of Christmases past stretching back to when we were children.
Much has been made of the "pagan" origins of the Christmas tree (and many of the traditions surrounding the celebration of Christmas itself, including its specific date three days after winter solstice), and much ink spilled on both sides of this often-contentious issue, and yet the actual meaning of this ancient symbol is rarely if ever explained beyond the rather obvious connection between the use of an "evergreen" tree and the concept of "eternal life" or the eternity of the human soul.
That Christmas falls on one of the four most important solar stations on the great circle of the year, the lowest-point of the sun which is reached at the December solstice (for observers in the northern hemisphere) is simply undeniable. In fact, its celebration coincides to the very stroke of midnight at the beginning of the third day after the day on which winter solstice most commonly falls -- the stroke of midnight between the 24th and the 25th of December, three days after December 21st (the traditional date of winter solstice -- the day will occasionally wander to the 22nd due to the fact that the number of complete earth rotation or days does not fit perfectly into the space required to get back to the exact point of winter solstice each year, necessitating a leap year to bring the calendar dates back in line with the annual stations on the great wheel).
The three-day pause probably originates from the fact that the sun seems to linger at the lowest point before turning around, just as it does at its opposite highest point at the summer solstice each June. This phenomenon, and the reason that the sun does not linger at the equinoxes, is discussed in this previous post about the mechanics of the solstices and equinoxes.
Previous posts have explored at some length the evidence which supports the assertion that the great wheel of the year can be "quartered" by drawing two lines between these four very important stations of the year: a horizontal line between the two equinoxes (March and September) and a vertical line between the two solstices (December and June). A diagram illustrating this idea is shown below, and previous posts which discuss ancient myths which seem to support this "cross within the circle of the year" can be found here, here and here (among many others).
Note that this appears to have been a worldwide concept: the examples from those three posts span the sacred teachings of ancient Egypt, of the ancient Hebrew Scriptures in the Bible, of the ancient Greek Scriptures in the Bible, of the Vedas of ancient India, and of the Lakota of North America. I would argue that the traditions of many other cultures could be examined and found to contain a similar pattern.
The horizontal line between the equinoxes equates to the "casting down" of the spirit into the world of "the underworld," this world of incarnation. It is allegorically symbolized by the heavenly bodies which we see in the sky -- the sun, moon, planets and stars -- plunging down into contact with the horizon of earth or of water, as if these bodies which are native to the crystal spheres above have been thrown down into the mud of our earthly disc, there to plow through the underworld until they break free once again to rise into the sky on the other side.
This "casting down" took place at the equinoxes on the "Cross" of the circular year, because the equinoxes are the places where the ecliptic path of the sun "crosses" either above or below the celestial equator, creating the point of transition when days become shorter than nights (night prevails and the sun is figuratively in the "underworld" as we toil our way through winter) and the other point of transition when days again become longer than nights (and day prevails again, with the sun being figuratively released to dominate the sky once more, free from the clutches of the wintery months when night rules supreme).
In ancient Egypt, the god of the underworld was Osiris, and he was depicted as laid out horizontally like a corpse in many scenes, slain by his brother Set and bound in a sarcophagus, cast into the waters -- all of which are emblematic of our plunge into incarnate matter in these human bodies.
image: Wikimedia commons (link).
The Djed column itself (discussed in this previous post) was associated with the "backbone of Osiris," and it was figuratively "cast down" horizontally when Osiris was "laid out" in a sarcophagus like a corpse in the underworld (by the action of the sun's "crossing down" at the fall equinox). But Osiris was not destined to remain horizontal forever -- as the image above plainly intimates. He is destined to rise-up vertically, just as the shoots of grain shown rising from his body in the image above are doing. The raising of the mummified Osiris from the horizontal position to the vertical position was associated with the act of "raising the Djed column" from its "cast-down" horizontal position to its vertical orientation.
I believe that the raising of the Djed column is figured by the vertical line between the two solstices, shown in the zodiac-wheel diagram above. The raising of the Djed, the raising of the "corpse of Osiris," could be seen to take place when the sun stopped its descending path and turned back upwards: at that point of the very "bottom of the year."
This is why we erect the Christmas tree in anticipation of the turn that takes place at the absolute low-point of the year -- when the sun finally stops its descending path, arriving at winter solstice at December 21, and then it pauses there at its lowest point as if building up our anticipation for three days before starting back upwards towards the top of the year. If the point of fall equinox was figured as the "crossing point" of begin "cast down to the underworld," the turn that takes place at the bottom of the year is appropriate to be celebrated with the raising of a vertical pole, because that is the point where the Djed column begins to be raised back up, as the sun makes its turn from the dreadful downward plunge that it has been taking on its way to the December solstice.
If this interpretation is correct, the raising of the Christmas tree is symbolic of the vertical pillar that can be imagined running from the winter solstice at the bottom of the year and going up through the summer solstice at the very top of the year:
Indeed, there are many legends in which the corpse of Osiris is in fact imprisoned within the body of a tree, lending even more credence to this interpretation of the Christmas tree as commemorative of the raising of the Djed column at the winter solstice. In his discussion of the myth-cycle of Isis and Osiris, Plutarch says that the slain Osiris was imprisoned in a chest which floated out to sea and ended up making its way to Byblus (or Byblos). There, he writes (beginning in paragraph 15):
the waves had gently set it down in the midst of a clump of heather. The heather in a short time ran up into a very beautiful and massive stock [a "stock" as used here is a stump or a trunk of a tree], and enfolded and embraced the chest with its growth and concealed it within its trunk. The king of the country admired the great size of the plant, and cut off the portion that enfolded the chest (which was now hidden from sight), and used it as a pillar to support the roof of his house.
Thus, we see that the corpse of Osiris was in this legend "cast down" into a horizontal position within a chest, but then turned into a tree and was brought into a house (just as the Christmas tree is brought into our homes). His corpse (imprisoned within the tree) is eventually recovered by Isis and restored to life.
Elsewhere, we have explored the evidence suggesting that Isis taking the corpse of Osiris down from its prison inside the pillar in the palace of the king of Byblos is analogous to the pieta scenes in which Mary the mother of Jesus receives his crucified body back from the Cross, before it is raised up again at the resurrection.
image: Wikimedia commons (link).
If this interpretation of the "cross" of the year is correct, with the horizontal line between the equinoxes analogized in ancient myth as the "casting down of the Djed" and the laying out of the corpse of Osiris in his sarcophagus or on his bier, and the vertical line between the solstices analogized in ancient myth as the "raising up of the Djed," then the "raising up of a Djed" in our homes (in the form of a Christmas tree) would almost certainly be predicted to take place in anticipation of the "turn" of the year which takes place at the December solstice. And this is exactly when we do in fact erect the Christmas tree in our homes: in the days or weeks leading up to the point of winter solstice.
The fact that Osiris was explicitly described as being imprisoned in a tree, and brought into the palace when he was in the form of a tree, lends even greater strength to the argument that our tradition of bringing in the Christmas tree into our homes hearkens back to the symbology of the "vertical Djed column" associated with the vertical line that gets erected each year beginning at the low-point of winter solstice. Below is an image from ancient Egypt of the goddesses Isis and Nephthys raising Osiris to a vertical position between them -- this time, he is in his manifestation as Osiris-Re or Osiris depicted with the head of Amon-Ra:
image: Wikimedia commons (link).
The upsweep of the wide-spreading horns at the top of this "Djed-shaped" god (with the solar disc between them) are strongly reminiscent of the outstretched arms of the Scarab, which we have previously argued is connected to the outstretched arms of the zodiac sign of Cancer the Crab, who is located at the summer solstice point, at the top of the "vertical line" in the zodiac wheel that we are trying to establish as the "vertical Djed column."
Again, all of this evidence should strengthen the case that the tree we are erecting as we approach the bottom of the year is a representation of the divine spiritual component in the Cross of the year, the vertical line running from the winter solstice all the way up the summer solstice, the line that represents the lifting up of the "dead god" from his prison in the sarcophagus to the upward line which points up to the very summit of the year at the summer solstice, highest heaven.
Figuratively, this raising of the Djed column may well be indicative of our mission in this incarnation: to see beyond the merely physical or horizontal (difficult to do, trapped as we are in these bodies in the same manner that Osiris is bound in his mummy-wrappings), and to call forth the invisible, the spiritual, the vertical. For more on this thought, see the previous post entitled "Blessing."
Interesting additional confirmation of this identification of the Christmas tree with the vertical pillar of the Djed comes from the other Christmas tradition involving a tree-trunk, less commonly celebrated today but once taken very seriously: the tradition of the Yule log. Various accounts of the Yule log indicate that it was a huge trunk, the biggest that could be found, sometimes chosen from a type of tree seen as sacred, and hauled into the house to be burned in the fireplace, but only after it had been anointed with oil and salt and spices and prayed over first. It was often so large that only its "head" could fit into the fireplace, and the rest of the mighty log stretched out into the great room or family room.
image: Wikimedia commons (link).
Based on these descriptions of the tradition, it is difficult not to conclude that the Yule log represents not the Djed column "raised up" as with the Christmas tree, but the Djed column "cast down," since it was basically dragged around horizontally and then burned.
The fact of its being burned provides added confirmation that the Yule log is the "horizontal component" that represents the line between the equinoxes (as opposed to the vertical pillar connecting the solstices). The equinoxes, where the sun's ecliptic path crosses the celestial equator, were strongly associated with fire: in fact, as is discussed in this previous post, ancient Mithraic sculpture and bas-reliefs often depicted the two equinoxes as two youths, each holding a torch (one up for the equinox in which the sun is crossing up towards summer, and one down for the equinox in which the sun is crossing down towards winter).
The tradition of having the Yule log lit each year by the daughters in the household or by the
mother only strengthens this connection, since the "casting down" point of the year takes place a the autumnal equinox presided over by the sign of Virgo the Virgin. This fact also helps to explain the numerous depictions of the vertical Djed column in between the two goddesses, such as in the image of Osiris-Re shown above or in the image of the Djed column in the form of an Ankh (surmounted by the upraised arms) in between the same two goddesses.
image: Wikimedia commons (link).
The Djed column is the stylized "backbone"-shaped column supporting the Ankh-cross itself (you can see the "vertebrae" at the top of the Djed).
Based on this evidence, it appears that the symbology of the Christmas tree (and the now nearly-forgotten symbology of the Yule log) has extremely ancient roots. One could say that all of this evidence supports the argument that the familiar Christmas symbols are really "pagan" and not "Christian," but I believe this misses the real point, which is that the distinction between "pagan" and "Christian" is actually based upon an enormous misunderstanding, because all these sacred traditions the world over can be shown to be using the same system of celestial metaphor -- and that includes all the stories of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. The symbols may change their outward appearance somewhat, but their core form remains recognizable, and their message (I believe) is fundamentally the same.
In writing about the symbology of the Christmas tree in his 1940 masterpiece Lost Light, Alvin Boyd Kuhn wrote that the fire atop the Yule log, or the glowing candles upon the Christmas tree, symbolizes the divine spark in each man and woman, hidden in the rough element of our physical form (317). Elsewhere in the same text he writes:
The savior is not nailed on the tree; he is the tree. He unites in himself the horizontal human-animal and the upright divine. And the tree becomes alive; from dead state it flowers out in full leaf. The leaf is the sign of the life in a tree. 416.
Thus both of these ancient symbols work together at this time of year to convey to us a profound message about who we are. We are both the Yule log "cast down" and the Christmas tree "raised up," the horizontal "human-animal" and the upright "divine."
This aspect of the symbology is usually absent from the annual discussions of the "pagan" origins of the Christmas tree and other symbols. Yet I believe the evidence is abundantly present to support such an understanding -- and I believe that it is an interpretation that makes these ancient symbols incredibly powerful to us even to this very day, even as they connect us back across thousands of years to the same sacred traditions from ancient cultures all around our planet.