Advent and Christmas
In the silence of a midwinter dusk, there is a sound so faint that for all you can tell it may be only the sound of the silence itself. You hold your breath to listen. You are aware of the beating of your heart. The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens.
Advent is the name of that moment.
We seldom stop to think nowadays about the positions of festivals in the calendar. Are they arbitrary, or does a deeper wisdom play in to the many decisions made in the past on dates for festivals, whether Christian or other?
Christmas in the Christian calendar is preceded by the period of Advent. This is a period of preparation, each of the four Sundays prior to Christmas taking on a particular significance. In traditions there is the advent wreath with four candles for the four Sundays, and children love the ceremony that can be built around lighting the candles, a new one for each new Sunday. It provides an inspiring visual image for the build-up towards Christmas. In some traditions each Advent Sunday celebrated a new element or kingdom: from mineral, to plant, animal and finally human.
The words of a traditional Advent carol come to mind, here the first two lines:
People look east, the time is near,
Of the crowning of the year…
Each verse adds another element:
- first it is preparing the hearth and table for the guest: of looking after the place, the home, the daily bread – making them ready;
- second is of time, seasons and growth: nourishing the seed that the flower, the rose, may flourish;
- the third rises to the animal kingdom: the bird, guarding the nest, with reference to the young fledgling;
- the fourth: stars keep the watch… the star as the sign of the human being, every human being having a star to guide;
- the fifth: ‘Angels announce to man and beast…’ Something greater still, the Christ being.
All five are permeated with love, as expressed in the refrain: love the guest is on the way; love the rose… and so forth.
The Soul Calendar Verses for Advent and Christmas-time
Set free from spell in womb of soul;
The holy cosmic Word has conceived
In clarity of heart
The heaven-fruit of hope,
Which joyous grows toward farthest worlds
Out of my being’s godly ground.
The Holy Nights, the New Year, Three Kings and Epiphany
The festivals around the Winter Solstice, Christmas and the New Year carry particular significance in many cultures. The date for Christmas has undergone changes since the time of Jesus’ birth. In its current position (for most countries) on December 25th, it lies several days after the Winter Solstice, the time when people of all cultures and religions over millennia have celebrated the ‘rebirth’ of the sun. In a way, it is an obvious and significant place for it to stand. But it also stands in relation to the date when New Year was often celebrated earlier, at the Spring Equinox time, Easter time, or at the Annunciation on 25th March, 9 months ahead of Christmas. Purely from the experience of the seasons it has significance: spring is the time when new life begins, and we celebrate as it were a second birth or the beginning of a new cycle at Christmas, thus bringing together the earth’s seasonal cycle with the mother’s nine month cycle fro inception until birth.
In some areas of the world, Christmas is still celebrated on another day, one which used to be more important in the early centuries of the western orthodox church: the 6th of January, or Epiphany. It is still important in the eastern orthodox church. Some regions celebrate Christmas on 7th January.
Why the differences?
There are different levels to consider. For some, this is explained more materialistically simply by saying it is due to the calendar change, from Julian to Gregorian in 1582. Indeed, some regions still figure their festival dates around Julian calendar calculations. Present day analysts cite the current 13 day difference between the two calendars as demonstration that this equals the distance from Christmas to 6th January. However, this ignores the fact that, when the calendar was changed in 1582, there was only a 10 day difference. The further back we go, though the Gregorian calendar didn’t exist, the less this difference would have been, yet… the 12 Holy Nights were still a very deep, even mystical, time and celebration. The old Scandinavian Dream Song of Olaf Asteson, dating back to much earlier centuries, recounts a spiritual experience of Olaf Asteson through this period, passing through the 12 signs of the zodiac.
This latter relates to another mystical tradition: seeing the difference between the solar and the lunar calendars — 11 days or 12 nights — as 12 Holy Nights, and as a ‘time between the years‘. As a ‘time between the years’ comes the mystical relationship between these 12 nights and the 12 following months of the year. This can be lived into meditatively, in similar sense to the Song of Olaf Asteson, where the first night — Christmas eve to Christmas — relates to the quality of January, continuing so for the following nights. Attention can also be paid to ones dreams during this time. Another custom looks at the 12 days, 25th December to 5th January, as a template for the following 12 months, e.g. in weather patterns.
*Another ‘cosmic’ relationship to this period is that, while the ‘darkest’ time of the year is at the winter solstice, an interesting juxtaposition to this is that during the Holy Nights the earth is at its closest to the sun, known as perihelion. (More could be pondered and meditated on in this relationship, but not at the moment here.) This varies slightly each year, with the date moving backwards and forwards depending on the influence of the other planets and the moon on the earth’s orbit. Interestingly, perihelion for the year 2020 was apparently the closest the earth will get to the sun for the whole 21st century, and the aphelion — earth farthest from the sun — in July 2019, was the greatest separation for the century. Thus, it is a time when polarities become accentuated — and that certainly is an experience for how outer events played out in the two year period that immediately followed…
And so we arrive at Ephiphany and Three Kings Day.
Though we know it more popularly as Three Kings Day, with many interpretations on deeper meanings behind the three kings, 6th January is also the day of the baptism of Jesus. This was and still is by some celebrated as the birth of Christ, i.e. when the Christ descended into Jesus, in the picture of the dove descending from above at the baptism. It is thus a very spiritual and esoteric event and symbol; yet as the centuries and millennium became more and more materialistically inclined, it was too difficult of a concept for many to grasp and relate to. Except for the Eastern Orthodox church, a decision to shift the celebrated date to Christmas allowed a more experiential relationship to a new child born, coming shortly after the solstice: an outwardly visible event of the sun regaining its force. Following just after Adam and Eve Day on December 24th, the emphasis is on the innocent and pure child, before the fall as it were, before the temptation of the purely material pleasures of the physical world. Lived into, it could become a symbol for the birth of an inner child that can show us the way to our higher self…
Thus there was created a period from the innocent Jesus child’s birth to the Christ birth: the twelve days of Christmas and the twelve Holy Nights. This period is a journey, portrayed for instance in the very old Scandinavian ‘Dream Song of Olaf Asteson’, where Olaf awakens on the 13th day after a long spiritual experience – awakens to proclaim the birth of Christ on Epiphany, the 6th January. Such ‘journeys’ can be worked on in our own inner imagination and meditations: the picture of the innocent infant child, as a small radiating flame needing nurturing, bringing hope; through a period of growth to realise a conscious birth or rebirth of spirit, where the flame can radiate and shine to all around, in our thoughts, words and deeds.
Standing approximately in the middle of these 12 days is New Year’s Eve. As with the Roman god, Janus, we look back and we look forward: a time of decision where we summon the will to move forward to a conscious spiritual rebirth. Another aspect: New Year’s day was ‘an octave’ or exactly one week away from Christmas day – as we’re all familiar with (if Christmas is on a Tuesday, we know that New Year’s day will also be).
The principle of ‘Octaves‘ began fairly early in Christian calendars as something that surrounded festival days, used more earlier, now less. This also wasn’t something arbitrary – the principle of the Octave has rhythms, again, as a basis: the rhythm of the week takes you through seven days of different experiences, each day of the week perceived in relation to another quality, governed by the planets. On the eighth day you don’t simply return home: through the experience, like the seven colours of the rainbow, you have magnified the original and arrive at a higher level. One can muse on the number relationships in music and a similar octave principle there. Truly, as Pythagoras expounded and demonstrated, number principles permeate the whole universe!
Naturally there are still many other ‘New Year’ dates around the world. Some, mainly in the East, are based on a lunar calendar: The Chinese New Year begins on the first new moon between 21 January and 20 February – the period one full month after the winter equinox. The name given to the year follows the cycle of the 12 Chinese zodiac. The Chinese New Year 2020 began on January 25th. The 2021 New Year begins on February 12th and is Year of the Ox, the second of the 12 constellations. In the 2022 it is the year of the Tiger, beginning on February 1st.
Whatever the older tradition, we need to resist the modern materialist temptation to think of them as set arbitrarily, or formed ‘merely’ according to religious beliefs or superstitions. Many are based on seasonal, planetary and zodiacal rhythms, weaving together in many wonderful ways. Relating in real ways to the earthly and cosmic rhythms surrounding us used to be very important and is something we have largely lost. But it can become more significant again for us if we renew this in a conscious way. Nurturing these and other rhythms brings an inner strength and resilience…
We wish everyone a wonderful Advent, Winter Solstice, Christmas and New Year, full of inspiration and initiatives. May it bring renewed and strengthened inner spiritual commitment!
A contribution by Richard Brinton