December 12th, 2013

A Mystical View of the Christmas Tree

An Astroinquiry Favorite
from December 2009

I’ve always put up a Christmas tree. Despite the halfhearted participation (and groaning) of my boyfriends, I’ve faithfully, right after Thanksgiving, headed out and bought (or here on Vashon, cut down) a tree to lug home. It’s a ritual I rarely miss.

After visiting India some years ago I returned home in the winter and the notion of putting a bauble-laden tree on display felt absurd. This is a rite of passage for anyone who ventures to India: Your brain cells are rearranged and you never view your world, or its customs, the same. I know that was true for me as a Westerner. Christmas in America, after the dust and squalor of India, felt gluttonous. So I skipped the holidays that year — though I missed having a tree in the house.

I enjoy the act of arranging the colors, textures and lights on a tree. It’s similar to making a painting, the alchemy of conjuring art. Simpler, but no less magical. I especially love the ricochetting of light amidst the ornaments, as it envelops the tree at nighttime. As I’ve grown older I’ve come to understand that the ritual of displaying a tree is a sacred act — although I’ve never fully understood why.

Most of us are familiar with the historical origins of the Christmas tree. Its association with the pagan rite of celebrating the solstice. When the light of the Sun ‘returns’ in the Northern hemisphere and begins its increase and ascent, the radiance grows stronger and longer through the ensuing months. Trees would be displayed to honor the burgeoning of light and life. And the fruits and trinkets that would decorate the tree honored the bounty, the wish of a successful harvest in the year to come.

And yet the historical perspective never impressed me much. I mean, none of those facts would drift through my mind as I’d lounge on the couch in the evening — no matter my age — and stare at the tree until I fell asleep. Nope, another set of mysterious associations would encircle me and send me into a reverie. And it wasn’t until I came to the conclusion of one of my favorite books this year that I began to make sense of my devotion.

Martha Heyneman‘s book The Breathing Cathedral is a fantastic interweaving of the cosmologies of Gurdjieff, Dante, Aquinas, Stephen Hawking and others, into a new model, a new interpretation of the universe we inhabit. I was drawn to the book because, as a longtime student of Gurdjieff’s teachings, I was intrigued to see how Heyneman, a zoology student turned poet, was bringing Gurdjieff’s teachings forward and marrying them to the world of science.

The last chapter of her book is titled O Christmas Tree, and at first the subject — the family Christmas tree — seemed an odd way to summarize all that she’d explored in the previous chapters. But in the end I understood completely.

She opens the chapter describing her physical discomfort, while sliding on her stomach beneath the family Christmas tree one evening, to doggedly place an ornament on a rear branch that remained bare. All the while complaining to herself how the rest of the family is in another room, disinterested, gathered in front of a blaring television. She finally declares to her husband, who suddenly walks in on his wife lying face down beneath the tree: “Next year I’m not going to have a tree.”

“Why?” he inquires. Because no one cares anymore, she explains. “It doesn’t mean anything to anybody.”

The chapter progresses, as one by one other family members come into the room and begin to help decorate the tree. As she explains, the tree has a sort of magnetic pull, from the past and into the present, throughout the lineage of a family, “as if the conical shape of the fir tree were an inverted vortex, exerting a centripetal force, drawing us at the same time upward and toward the center. It draws us together both in time and in space. It is reuniting us with our parents, who passed the custom on to us, and with one another.” Finally, the tree is complete and radiant with light. And that’s when Heyneman has her revelation.

She hears herself speak to everyone gathered in the living room: “Do you know what it is? It is the whole universe, with stars and planets and plants and fruits and birds and animals.”

“Up there” — she points to the space above the tree — “is the invisible, out of which everything comes.”

“And the point at the top is the big bang, the singularity where everything enters into space and time. And then it expands downward, producing everything that is: stars and planets and fruits and animals and birds.”

She continues to make distinct associations: “…lights for stars and baubles for planets.”

“Someone must have intended that,” she continues. “I never thought about the meaning before but just blindly repeated the ritual, spurred on by the wish that my children should experience what I myself experienced as a small child.”

A Christmas tree is a magical transformation she explains, filling a room with a finer kind of substance — something “vibrating at a higher frequency, many colored, fragrant, softly glowing, exciting…” Making things feel more alive. “A wonderful intelligence was at work behind the appearances.”

It’s easy to forget how enlivening the Christmas season can actually feel. Despite the dulling pall of commercialization and all of the other horrors people bitch about this time of year — it’s truly a season of magic. There is something in the air, if you are sensitive enough to feel it.

“This is the true meaning of esoteric knowledge,” Heyneman tells us. “That the way you have seen things done every day all your life has an inner, psychological and cosmological, meaning that will be revealed to you at the proper time, when you are ready to make use of it to order your inner world into one harmonious whole.”

And the winter solstice does seem to coincide with a quality, an experience of time that is sacred. The darkening of the light is more than just an astronomical happening that is related to the earth’s angular relationship to the Sun. All of that darkness begets a stillness, a settling, a reflection that mirrors awareness of our inner light, our inner life.

I think this is why Christmas touches us despite our knowing or understanding what exactly is transpiring. We’re caught up in the outer events that define the season, whereas in tandem, in secret, there is that gathering of the light, the chance for increased awareness and wakefulness. And the Christmas tree is the perfect living symbol, a holographic condensation you could say, of all of that light, all of that living, and all that is promised in the new year (the new life) to come.

Merry Christmas.

Opening photograph: Waiting for Santa, date and photographer unknown.

18 Responses to 'A Mystical View of the Christmas Tree'
Filed Under: Gurdjieff and Seasons
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  • Absolutely marvelous! Bravo! Bright Blessings and Joy…Happy Solstice!

  • Atia of the Julii

    Frederick, thank you for this. I’m completely taken aback. And rethinking my entire attitude towards Christmas, and Christmas trees!

  • NR

    Merry Christmas, Frederick!

  • MMCH

    Thank you for the inspiration to continue the Christmas Tree Tradition. I look forward to all of your posts of words, photos and insights each month.
    Happy Solstice!

  • godfrey hamilton

    Just beautiful. Extraordinary. And it’s given me so much to think on, and to share. Haven’t seen you in so many years… but we miss you. xox G&M

  • Absolutely wonderful post Frederick. Thank you. All the best to you over the holidays.

  • Tessa

    Time out of time.

    25 years ago, uprooted from my native Pacific NW, and the lush evergreens, sweet waters, to the American plains of Oklahoma, I faced the conundrum of a Christmas tree.

    The sickly brown trees for sale at the Christmas tree lots were expensive, and more, did not do justice to the idea of the tree. In all the brown lands of Comanche County, the only green to be seen was the mistletoe in the Oaks.

    I used a frisbee to knock down bunches of mistletoe from high in the wild oaks. I salvaged evergreen boughs, still green, loped from the Christmas tree lot. I wove the boughs and bunches of mistletoe into a Christmas alter, soaring in the middle, flaring to the sides, on a sturdy oak sideboard. Decorated with lights and ornaments and memories, the magic ignited, with a stained glass candle lantern holding the center.

    Such things we do so our spirits thrive in alien landscapes of locusts and tornados and baptists.

    Now, as I write, returned long ago to the PNW, the Christmas alter is lit. My 21-year old son has grown-up weaving the boughs and decorating the branches. During the difficult and cynical teen years, he and his friends would grow solemn and thoughtful as we gathered fir and pine and cedar and rosemary, and I told the story of solstice, the turning wheel of the year, how the snake swallows its tail, and we believe in light in the time out of time, that life is evergreen.

    And those young men’s eyes shone, despite the pride and assurance of their youthful arrogance, believed again in magic.

    Merry Christmas

  • Sharon and Ron

    Frederick. You always manage to present the unique and contemporary angles on G.’s system . This was so sweet and moving . Thank you! And Tessa , I loved your post as well. Truly magical.


  • VeronicaV

    Thank you Frederick. You’ve put words to what I’ve felt…

  • Colleen

    Dear Fredrick,

    I am moving tomorrow after 25 years of settlement into a new dimension of my life and all that I own now fits into a 10x6x6 u-haul… but for some mysterious reason, I am taking my bit of cosmic Christmas tree decorations with me for all the reasons you’ve written about so eloquently.
    Heart chakras are opening in this festival of lights. The lights will reflect off the lake that I will live on this year and take on new meaning. I may just have to set it up early! Love your blogs…they are deeply moving.
    Thank you,

  • Godfrey

    So pleased to read this again; a freshener for the wilting psyche. Thank you and all good wishes.

  • Katrina

    Hello Frederick,

    I remembered this beautiful post from last year, and returned to your site hoping to find it in the archive — and there it was again, a lovely Christmas gift. Thank you,


  • Cellibelle

    Hi, Frederick,

    The attchd. video isn’t about a Christmas tree, but it conveys all that you’ve described, esp. the “galactic” images near the closing. Hope your Solstice and Holiday are the very best.

    Lynn H.

  • bdsMAC

    I’m so glad that I read this Frederick and all the comments as I sit here alone without family or a tree this year. You’ve brought a bit of the Xmas magic back in to the darkness of this transition. Next year a tree with all the trimmings! Merry Xmas! Much love,

  • Christine Powers

    I agree and really resonate with the planets and stars connection…the awe and wonder that the Christmas tree inspires. I like how you described the decorating of the tree is like creating a painting. That is exactly how I feel when I decorate it. I stare at it and then move and arrange the decorations many times …sometimes over a period of a few days, until…voila…it is just right!!! Magic! Thanks for sharing.

  • Jared Dorotiak

    Christmas tree as cosmos….beautiful, and what a lovely piece of writing. Surprised by joy again.

  • frederick_a_woodruff

    Thank you Jared. Much of the wonder here (and props) go to Martha’s ruminations. If you get a chance to read her book, I highly recommend it! Merry Christmas.

  • frederick_a_woodruff

    You’re welcome Christine. Appreciate your feedback and glad you found the article inspirational.