Festival of the Soul

The festival of Christmas with its ancient pagan roots in celebrating the winter solstice holds deep spiritual significance beyond the Christian faith. Sarah Kous speaks to Horst Kornberger about the Steiner view of Christmas.

The festival of Christmas with its ancient paganroots in celebrating the winter solstice holds deepspiritual significance beyond the Christian faith. SarahKous speaks to Horst Kornberger about the Steiner viewof Christmas.

Throughout the year we go about our daily tasks andduties, encountering struggles along the way, but atChristmas a feeling awakens within us that, above allthe strife and turmoil, there is peace and harmony.Rudolph Steiner believed that Christmas has deep spiritualsignificance for us as human beings, which is why thefestival is nourishing for our soul.

The winter solstice festival has been observed forat least 6000 years across many cultures. The popularfestivity occurred at a time of year when food and drinkwas in abundance, and was celebrated with colourfulcarnivals, decorations, feasting and wild merrymaking.In 350AD Roman Bishop Julius I chose the winter solsticefestival as the birthday of Jesus Christ, to be observedby no more than a solemn fast. While the move promotedChristianity, the people blended Church symbols withthe ancient ones, but the parties continued and thenew festival spread throughout Europe. Some 1200 yearslater, celebrating Christmas was declared heathen andwas banned in parts of America and England by the Puritans.Despite the risk of fines and imprisonment for partiesor hanging decorations, the laws were ignored and riotseven broke out in some cities. Under pressure from thepeople, Christmas was finally made legal again, as lateas 1907 in some US states.

So why does Christmas have such a powerful grip onthe collective Western psyche? Horst Kornberger, whoheads the Goethean Studies Program and runs a seriesof other Steiner-based lectures and courses, explainsthat the festival is deeply rooted in our consciousnessbecause it is symbolic of renewal, change and rebirthwhich are essential to the human spirit. He says thatin ancient times, humanity still lived closely linkedto the rhythms of nature, which were experienced asthe external manifestation of divine beings. The changesof seasons, for instance, were simultaneously experiencedas transforming events in the human soul, and the wintersolstice, or "Rebirth of the Sun", was the most importantfeature in the cycle of the year. Steiner taught thatthe course of human life was a mini repetition of thecourse of cultural evolution. For this reason, festivalsinfluence children in a way similar to that which earlierhumanity experienced, which is why Christmas is especiallysignificant for them. While Christmas traditions havebeen preserved through the ages, varying in form accordingto culture and region, it has been the children, havinga more instinctive understanding of the symbols andtraditions, who inspire and help sustain them. Ratherthan viewing gift giving as a commercial stunt, Horstsuggests we can see this gesture as imitating the sungiving life and the Christ bringing new possibilities.Other symbols, such as the Christmas tree, emphasisethe transformation happening during the course of theyear.

"The Christmas tree is a conifer, it has needles notleaves, it does not bear flowers or fruit like the deciduoustrees," says Horst.

"It is stark and somewhat stuck in its ascent. Wetake the tree and we adorn it with flowers, fruit, sweetsand sparklers. We give to it what it lacks in its naturalevolution. It is symbolic of the human state, and theadorning of the tree is a symbol of its redemption.Through the incarnation of Christ, the Christmas treeis able to bear fruit and flowers."

Although the birth of Christ is a relatively new additionto the ancient festival, Horst says the event is alsohighly significant to it. While the early church hadoriginally made this move to eradicate paganism, subduewild street parties, and promote Christianity, the datecouldn't have been more suitable in enhancing and evolvingthe original meaning of the festival. Horst explainsthat, although ancient spiritual knowledge had beenlost in the turbulence of time, an intuition for itstill prevailed in the choice of date, linking the wintersolstice to the birth of Christ who is the fulfillmentof the old festival.

"Steiner said that human evolution at the time ofChrist's birth had reached a certain point of maximumascent, a kind of winter or stagnation.

"The sun 'spirit' eventually became the visible sun,and the once vital participation in divine life paledto a formalised event, a festival aiming to restorethe spiritual past," he says.

"But those with deeper spiritual insights knew thatthe expected redeemer, the Messiah, was the spirit ofthe sun who ranks as central among the angelic hierarchiesof heaven as does the visible sun among its planetarypeers.

"The hope was widely shared that the being who breaksthe spell of winter cold each year, and calls slumberingnature back to life will one day turn the winter ofthe human soul into a spiritual spring.

"The incarnation of Christ is therefore significantfor human evolution as it brought renewed ascent."

Since that significant moment, Horst says that theability to transform and renew oneself is no longersolely bound and dependent on the course of nature.Renewal and transformation have become a permanent capacityof each human soul. The rebirth of the year became therebirth of human evolution, and the Christmas experiencemoved its focus from the 'rebirth of the outer sun',to the birth, and then rebirth, of the 'Light' insideus. But, while the Christ event symbolically liberatedus from our dependency on elements outside us, Horstemphasises that Rites of Passage are still more easilyexperienced at certain times of the year.

"There are, for example, crucial moments in our biographythat come at certain times in our lives," he says.

"During specific life transitions, we can also experiencetransforming processes of the soul, and these are morenurtured at certain times of the year. It is up to usto be aware of this relationship and, if we're observantof life in general, we will find that there are certainpatterns in our own development."

Being based as it is on the Northern Hemisphere'sseasonal patterns, is Christmas still relevant herein Australia when it occurs in the middle of summer?Horst explains that we can always find meaning and connectthe festival with the patterns in nature wherever weare. Christmas in Australia, for example, just needsnew forms and meaning.

"As a summer festival it may symbolise the transitionfrom scouring heat that burns the land into the approachof autumn, rain and fertility, and the regrowth of vegetation.Every area will have its own set of meanings, or canbe developed according to what happens between the humansoul and nature, at that specific location."

While here in Australia there's a freedom in how wechoose to celebrate or acknowledge the festival, andthe conventional Christmas has become a matter of choice,Horst says that the renewal of the soul must still besought. Or, like the Puritans, who preferred the coniferto the Christmas tree, we would stagnate. He insiststhat Christmas and its symbols of renewal, evolutionand transformation, are not about religious creeds,but are living possibilities in each human being andaccessible to the atheist as much as the fervent believer.

"If we choose, we can return to this old, abused,but still beloved feast, and renew it from the sourceof inner Christmas found within ourselves. Then theold symbols come alive again. "When the Christmas tree,that dark restricted conifer of northern woods is nowadorned with all the fruit and flowers that its naturelacks, we understand it as a picture of our future selvesand hope that we will sparkle just as much in timesto come.

"Freedom to change inwardly and outwardly, to makechoices, to find out and interpret things ourselves,to evolve, is a permanent Christmas of the soul.
"Connected with the inner essence of the feast we willnot fail to find ways to celebrate it here down underour southern sun."

The final phase in this spiritual evolution is whenthe human gives something back to nature, an aim fosteredby the Goethean movement.