A Christmas Story:
This morning I had a revelation, or so it felt. I was shown, and was able to grasp on an intuitive level, how an incredible mix of traditions and religions all come together in our celebration of Christmas. It’s an amazing mix—from Arctic and northern European pagan solstice ritual, to Norse mythology, to the shamanic use of sacred plants, to the birth of a baby in a stable from a humble Jewish family in Palestine, to the awakening of the Christ light—the spirit of unconditional love—within every human heart. See if this makes sense to you…
First, imagine that you lived thousands of years ago near the Arctic Circle. You live in a tribe which keeps domesticated reindeer for milk, and hunts wild reindeer for skins and food. (The reindeer were as fundamental to their culture as the buffalo was to the Plains Indians—source of food, shelter, clothing, and tools honed from bones.) They revere the reindeer, and, like all Native cultures, have a profound respect for nature and honor their inter-connectedness and their responsibility to care for the natural world.
As in all Native cultures, the Sun is a big deal – a major deity, and, in their case, a female deity. Living so far north (and the world was colder then), the time of the winter solstice is a BIG deal. Not just the shortest day, no day at all. No sun for days on end. Imagine huddling in your skin and fur clothing inside your yurt with snow coming up to the roof outside, with a small fire inside, only the smoke hole offering a view of the outside. And all you see is darkness, unrelenting darkness. Talk about Seasonal Affective Disorder! It must have been pretty depressing to see no sun, and all you have is the memory—and the stories handed down from old people to young people—that the sun will always come back…or at least, they say, it always has….
While you are wondering whether the sun will return, you get a visit (via your smoke-hole) from the tribe’s shaman who is responsible for harvesting and distributing the sacred red-and-white psychoactive mushrooms (Amanita muscaria) so central to your tribe’s spiritual life. You get your share and are able to use them during these terrible dark nights to access an inner warmth and light that keeps you going in spite of the outer cold and darkness. He may also share with you the gifts he has received from his astral travels into the upper worlds, which he accesses through ingesting the mushrooms and then “flying” (in his spirit body) up the “world tree” of the evergreen placed in his yurt. (Shamans come by their profession because they have the skill to navigate these alternate realities. He is assisted by these “magic” mushrooms which are especially known for enabling visions of flying for those gifted in soul journeying.) Through contacting the mushroom spirit, and by absorbing your shaman’s faith in the sun goddess, you are somewhat reassured. But there are still more days of darkness to endure…it is very trying to the body and the soul.
And then, on about December 25 the sun DOES come back. What a moment of celebration! The sun goddess has graced us again with her return, the snow will melt, the spring will come, and the tribe will survive!
Now, fast forward to the birth of Jesus. Those who witnessed his revolutionary teachings about forgiveness and unconditional love (“love your enemies,” “turn the other cheek” and so on) were converted to a new faith grounded in love, and in a benign (and fatherly) God. They were amazed at Jesus’s preaching that went way beyond the rules of conduct set forth by his ancestral Jewish tribe. They were awed by his unshakeable faith in his own divine nature, his oneness with his Creator. And they were even more amazed at his re-appearance after his death to his disciples, his “resurrection” offering proof that death is not the end, that Spirit survives death.
The original disciples clearly witnessed something extraordinary in the resurrection. It turned cowardly men into lions of courage—men and women who went out to share the “good news” of who Jesus was—a self-realized being who knew his oneness with God, who radiated unconditional love, who was a beacon of hope for all humankind. They risked (and often lost) their lives in order to preach this “good news.” They were on fire to let others to know that Jesus brought a new light into the world, the light of unconditional love. And furthermore, this Christ light could be accessed by anyone, anytime by opening their hearts to His Presence. Jesus Christ could be known as a friend and companion during the dark and lonely times of being human.
In themselves and in those whom they converted, opening the heart to the presence of Christ was (and is) a major event spiritually – it’s as if your cold, closed heart were suddenly, and unexpectedly, enlivened by the appearance of warmth, love, acceptance, forgiveness, compassion. Furthermore, the presence of Christ could be facilitated by drinking the sacred wine, following an ancient tradition of using mind-altering substances to access spiritual reality.
Now fast forward to northern Europe during the middle ages as Christianity began to make its way north. At that time Germany, the Scandinavian and other northern European countries would have been immersed in the Norse mythology.
I strongly suspect Norse myths were an evolution of the northernmost shamanic culture of the hunter-gatherer reindeer herders. The Norse mythology shares the shamanic belief in a world tree, a division of the world into upper, middle and lower worlds, and a God, Odin, who sounds like a shaman. Odin was a god who sought knowledge by traveling through the different worlds, who endured personal suffering for the sake of gaining this knowledge (similar to the trials endured during the initiation of the shaman, or, for that matter, like the fasting/ testing that Jesus went through in order to become a spiritual teacher). Further, Odin had an eight-legged flying horse, which probably learned to fly the same way the Artic shamans and their reindeer had – by eating the sacred “flying” mushrooms, which grow throughout Northern Europe. And his most famous flight on his horse takes place during the long nights of the winter solstice, or Yule time.
Now, imagine you are a convert to Christ, and you are carrying His message of forgiveness and love to the northern European pagans. How do you convince them that there is a new light on the planet, a new world teacher—more powerful than their shamans and more comforting than their traditions?
You could point to the single most dramatic appearance of light in their world – the re-birth of the sun after the long dark days of the winter solstice. You could let them know that having the sun’s light return to the sky after days of darkness is like having Christ’s light burst into your heart, bringing an unexpected joy, and instantly transforming your dark, sad and sorry soul.
This was not just a propaganda tool for the Christian evangelists. It was (and is) the strongest possible metaphor to illustrate a spiritual truth. The coming of the sun’s light after the dark nights is an exact outer parallel to the inner experience of suddenly glimpsing the warm glow of unconditional love as it enters and transforms our personal darkness. There is a natural spiritual link between these two events—the re-birth of the sun and the birth of Jesus Christ.
And so the solstice and the celebration of Christ’s birth are inextricably fused together. And along the way, via our north European roots, we are still celebrating some of the pagan aspects of our heritage—the red and white motif from the sacred mushrooms, the flying reindeer and shaman-claus bringing gifts to help us through the dark winter nights.
Christmas offers a universal invitation to us all (whether or not we call ourselves Christian) to open our hearts, to allow the light of forgiveness and love to be born within us. Jesus showed the way, but he also told us that we too are sons and daughters of God.
As we enter the dark nights, and celebrate the birth of the inner light, may we all remember the greatest of all gifts: awakening to our own true nature. Like Jesus Christ, we are, in essence, unconditional love and inextinguishable light. Like Jesus Christ, we are, in essence, one with our Creator.