Yuletide and the Christmas Festival
27 December 1910, Stuttgart
Revised by D. S. Osmond
By receiving the Spirit the human soul develops to ever further stages in the course of cosmic existence. The Spirit is eternal, but the way in which it takes effect, how it manifests in what man can feel, love and create on Earth — that is new in every epoch.
When we think in this way of the Spirit and its progressive manifestation in the course of man's existence, the Eternal and the Transitory are revealed to our eyes of soul. And in particular manifestations of life here and there, we can constantly perceive how the Eternal reveals itself, comes to expression in the Transitory and then vanishes again, thereafter to assert its reality in perpetually new forms.
And today too we can feel that the emblems of Christmas around us are reminiscent of past forms in which the Eternal, manifesting in the outer world, was wont to be symbolised. Certain it is that in the second half of December at the present time, when we go out into the streets of a great city and look at the lights that are intended to be invitations into the houses to celebrate the Christmas Festival, our aesthetic sense must be pained by displays of so-called Christmas goods, while inventions out of keeping with Christmas trees and Christmas symbols whiz past — motor cars, electric tramcars and the like. These phenomena, as experienced today, are utterly at variance with each other. We feel this still more deeply when we realise what the Christmas Festival has become for many of those who want to be regarded in the great cities as the representatives of modern culture. It has become a festival of presents, a festival in which little remains of the warmth and profound depth of feeling which in a past by no means far distant surrounded this most significant season.
Among the experiences restored to us by our anthroposophical conception of the world and way of thinking, will certainly be the warmth of feeling that pervaded the human soul at the times of high festival in the ancient Church's year. We must learn to understand once again how necessary it is for our souls to become aware at certain times of the connection with the great Universe out of which man is born, in order that our intellectual, perceptive and also moral forces may be revitalised. There was an epoch when Christmas was a festival when all morality, all love, all philanthropy could be revivified; in its symbols it radiated a warmth undreamed of by the dreariness and prosaicness of modern life. Nevertheless deep contemplation of these symbols could be a means of developing the perceptions, experiences and convictions of which we ourselves can be aware concerning the resurrection of mankind, the birth of the Spirit of Anthroposophy in our souls.
There is indeed a connection between the earlier conceptions of the Festival of Christ's birth and the modern anthroposophical conceptions of the birth of truly spiritual ideas and ways of thinking, of the birth of the whole anthroposophical spirit in the cradle of our hearts; there is indeed a connection. And maybe it is the anthroposophist of today who will most readily enter into what for long ages was felt at the time of the Christmas Festival and could be felt again if there were any hope of something similar emerging from the atmosphere of materialism surrounding us today.
But if we want to experience the Christmas Festival in the truly anthroposophical way, we cannot limit ourselves to what the Christmas Festival was once upon a time or is now. Wherever we look in the world, and into a past however distant, something that can be compared to the thoughts and feelings connected with the Christmas Festival has existed everywhere. Today we will not go back to the very far past but only to the feelings and experiences which men living in the regions of Middle Europe might have had before the introduction of Christianity at the time of the year when our own Christmas Festival is drawing near. We will think briefly of epochs prior to the introduction of Christianity into Europe, when in regions subject to relatively harsh climatic conditions our forefathers in Europe were obliged to make their living by spending the summer as pastoral or agricultural workers, while their feelings and inclinations were intimately connected with the manifestations of the great world of Nature. They were full of thanksgiving for the sun's rays, full of reverence for the great Universe — a reverence that was not superficial but deeply felt. And when the herdsman or cattle breeder of ancient Europe was out on his rough fields, often in scorching heat, he was inwardly aware not only of the outer, physical aspect of Nature, but in his whole being he felt intimately connected with whatever was radiated to him from Nature; with his whole heart he lived in communion with Nature. It was not only that in his eyes the physical rays of the sun were reflecting the light, but in his heart the sunlight kindled spiritual jubilation, summer-like exultation which culminated in the St. John's fires when the spirit of Nature shouted for joy and was echoed from the hearts of men. Intimate community was also felt with the animal world as being under man's guardianship.
Then came autumn, followed by the season of rigorous winter — and I am thinking now of times when winter swept through the land with a bleakness of which modern humanity has little idea. This was a time when, with the exception of what it was absolutely essential to preserve, the last head of cattle had to be slaughtered. All outer life was stilled; it was actually as though a kind of death made its way into the hearts of men, a kind of darkness, in contrast with the mood that pervaded these same hearts throughout the summer. Those were times when the unique manifestations of climate and of Nature, enabled echoes of ancient clairvoyance still to persist in Middle Europe. People who during the summer were full of joy and merriment, as though Nature herself were rejoicing in their hearts — these same people could become inwardly quiescent during the time of approaching winter; their own souls could respond to an echo of the mood that pervades a man when, unmindful of the outer world, he withdraws into his own inner world in order to become aware of the indwelling Divinity.
So it can be said that Nature herself made it possible for these ancient European peoples to descend from life in the external world deep down into their own inmost being. When November came near this descent into death and darkness was felt for weeks to be a solemn season, to be a harbinger of the approaching dawn of what was called the Yuletide Festival. This mood was a clear indication of how long the remembrance of ancient clairvoyant faculties had persisted among all the peoples of Northern and Middle Europe. During the season following the period roughly corresponding to our months of January and February, men felt inwardly aware of the portents of renewed rejoicing, renewed resurrection in Nature. They were aware of a foretaste of what they would subsequently experience in the external world; but when the fields were still covered with snow, when icicles were still hanging from the trees, when outside in Nature nothing indicated a future state of exultation, there was a persistent condition of withdrawal into themselves, of inner repose which was ultimately transformed in the soul in such a way that a man was, as it were, liberated from his own selfhood.
This intermediate state experienced by our forefathers at the approach of the season we now call spring was felt by them somewhat as the clairvoyant feels his astral body, before that astral body is completely cleansed and purified. It was as if the spiritual horizon were filled with all kinds of animal forms. And those men tried to give expression to this. For them it represented a transition from the profound, festival mood of approaching winter to the mood which would again pervade the soul during summer. And they imitated in symbols what the astral body reveals, imitated it in the form of uninhibited games and dances; by donning animal masks they imitated this transition from a state of complete inner repose to a state of exultant abandonment to great Nature.
When we ponder over this, when we reflect that the hearts and minds of peoples over wide areas were completely given up to such a mood, then we understand that there was present on this soil the feeling of sinking down into the outer physical darkness, into the outer physical death of Nature; we also understand the deep, persistent feeling that in sinking down into the physical death of Nature, into physical darkness, the supreme light of the Spirit can be revealed; and how the experience of being submerged in physical death is directly transformed into that mood of unbridled abandonment to which expression can be given by animal masks, unrestrained dancing and music. Admittedly there was not yet any fully developed feeling that if a human being is to find the highest light he must seek for it in the deepest depths of being; but through an inner, loving union with the weaving forces of Nature a soil was prepared into which there could be planted a knowledge to be imparted to men concerning their further evolution through the power of the Christ Impulse. To these peoples living all over Europe it was only necessary to say — not in dry, abstract words but speaking to the heart by means of symbols: ‘Where you plunge into darkness, into the death of outer Nature, there — if you have prepared your souls to perceive and feel rightly, you can find an eternal, imperishable Light. And this Light has been brought into the evolution of mankind through the quickening power of the Mystery of Golgotha, through the events in Palestine’.
It is characteristic of the centuries immediately following, that in Europe the warmest, most intimate feelings for the Christ Impulse were to be kindled by the thought of the Christ Child, by the birth of the Christ Child. And if we believe that mankind has a mission, what conception must we have of that mission? We must conceive that man has a divine-spiritual origin, that he can look back to that origin, but that he has descended farther and farther away from it, has become more and more closely interwoven with physical matter, with the outer physical plane. But we must also be aware that through the mighty Impulse which we call the Christ Impulse, man can overcome the forces that led him down into the physical world and tread the path upwards into the heights of spiritual life.
Having grasped this we must say to ourselves: as the human Ego is today, incarnated in a physical body, it has descended from divine-spiritual heights of existence and feels entangled with the world of the outer physical plane. But this Ego that has become sinful is rooted in another Ego, a guiltless Ego. Where then, does the Ego that is not yet interwoven with the physical world contact us? At the point when, looking back in memory over our life as it takes its course between birth and death, we come to the moment in our early years when consciousness of our Ego dawned for the first time. The Ego is there, although we are not aware that it is living and active within us, even when there is no realisation of Egohood at all. The Ego looks into the surrounding world, is interwoven with the physical plane even before there is any consciousness of Egohood. In its childlike, innocent state the Ego is nevertheless present and may hover before us as an ideal to be regained, but permeated then with everything that can be experienced in this school of physical life on the Earth. And so, although it will inevitably be difficult for the prosaic intellect to find words in which to clothe it, this ideal can be felt by warm human hearts: ‘Become what your Ego is before there is any concept of it! Become what you could be if you were to find your way to the Ego of your childhood! Then that Ego will shine into everything acquired by the Ego of your later years!’— And inasmuch as we feel this to be an ideal, it shines before us in Jesus of Nazareth, in whom the Christ subsequently became incarnate.
Experiences such as these enable us to understand that an impulse promoting growth and development could move the hearts of the simplest people all over Europe when they contemplated the incarnation of the Being who was afterwards able to receive the Christ into himself. So we realise that it was truly a step forward when feelings connected with the Festival of the birth of Jesus were inculcated into experiences connected with the old Yuletide Festival. It was indeed a mighty step forward and may perhaps best be characterised by saying that in those dark days, when souls gathered together in order to prepare for the rejoicings of the new summer — in that darkness the light of Christ Jesus was kindled!
An echo of what took place among European peoples in those early times still persists in the Christmas Plays which during the nineteenth century, or at any rate during its latter half, had become little more than objects of study for learned investigators and for collectors. During the Middle Ages, however, these Plays were already being performed in a characteristic style during the Christmas period. All the emotions, all the vitality kindled in souls living in the regions where, when Yuletide was approaching, people of an even earlier period had experienced what I have been describing — all these feelings were awakened by the Plays. And as we turn from the description of the old Yuletide Festival to the medieval Christmas Plays, we ourselves can realise what warmth swept through the European peoples with the advent of Christianity. An impulse of a unique kind penetrated then into the hearts and souls of men.
Conditions now are, of course, different from those of earlier times, and in the nineteenth century these Plays were regarded simply as perquisites of erudition. Nevertheless it was a moving experience to make the acquaintance of older philologists and authorities on Germanic mythology and sagas, men who with intense enthusiasm devoted profound study to whatever fragments remained of the Christmas Plays that were performed in different regions. I myself had an elderly friend who during the fifties and sixties of last century had been a Professor at a College in Pressburg and while there had devoted a great deal of time to research among the Germanic peoples who had been driven from Western to Eastern Hungary. He also admired the charming customs and the language of the now Magyarised German gypsies and of other folk living at that time in Northern Hungary. It came to his knowledge that early Christmas Plays were still performed in a village near Pressburg. And he — I am speaking of my old friend Karl Julius Schröer — went to the village in an attempt to discover what vestiges of these old Plays still survived among the country people. Later on he told me a great deal about the wonderful impressions he had also received of what was left of Christmas Plays belonging to far, far earlier times.
In a certain village — Oberrufer was its name — there lived an old man in whose family it was an inherited custom when Christmas came near, to gather together those in the village who were suitable to be alloted parts in a Play in which the Gospels' story of Herod and the Three Kings would be presented in a simple way.
To understand the unique character of these Christmas Plays, however, we must have some idea of the kind of life led by simple folk in olden times. It now belongs to the past and must not be repeated. To make the gist of the matter clear, let me just put this question: Is there not a particular time of the year when the snowdrop flowers? Are there not for the lily-ofthe-valley and for the violet particular seasons when they take their own places in the macrocosm? Certainly, under glass they can be made to flower at other periods but it really gives one pain to see a violet flowering at a time other than that which properly belongs to it. There is little feeling for such things in our day but something of the kind can be said about the people of earlier times. What men felt during certain periods of the Middle Ages at the approach of autumn and of Christmas, when the dark nights were drawing on apace, what they felt in such a way that their intimate experiences were akin to the manifestations of Nature outside, akin to the snow and the snowflakes and the icicles forming on the trees — such feelings were possible only at the time of Christmas. It was a mood that imparted strength and healing power to the soul for the whole of the year. It renewed the soul, was a real and effective power. And how deeply one was moved a decade or so ago when the last indications of such feelings were still to be encountered here or there. From my own personal experience on the physical plane itself I can confirm that there were utterly good-for-nothing fellows who would not dare to be dissolute as the days shortened. At Christmastime those who were invariably the most quarrelsome, quarrelled less and those who quarrelled only now and then stopped quarrelling altogether. A real power was active in souls at that time of the year and these feelings abounded everywhere during the weeks immediately before the Holy Night.
What was it that people actually experienced during those weeks? Their experiences, translated into actual feelings, were that human beings had descended from a divine-spiritual existence to the deepest depth on the physical plane, that the Christ Impulse had been received and the direction of man's path reversed into one of reascent to divine-spiritual existence. That is what was felt in connection with everything to do with the Christ Event. Hence it was not only Christian happenings that people liked to present, but just as the Church calendar couples Adam and Eve's day on 24 December with the birthday of Jesus on the 25th, a performance of the Paradise Play was followed directly by the Play presenting Christ's birthday, denoting the impulse given for man's reascent to divine-spiritual existence. And this was deeply felt when the name EVA resounded in the Paradise Play – EVA, the mother of humanity, from whom men had descended into the vale of physical life. This theme was presented on one day and on the next there was a Play depicting the impulse which brought about the reversal of man's path. This reversal was indicated in the actual sounds: AVE MARIA. AVE was felt to be the reversal of EVA: AVE-EVA. People were deeply stirred by words which rang out countless times to their ears and hearts from the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth centuries onwards, and which were understood.
Ave maris stella (Hail, star of the sea,)
Dei mater alma (Nursing mother of God,)
Atque semper virgo (Virgin for ever and ever,)
Felix coeli porta (Blissful door to the heavens above.
Sumens illud Ave (Adopting that ‘Ave’
Gabrielis ore (Out of the mouth of Gabriel,
Funda nos in pace (Establish us in peace
Mutans nomen Evae! (Altering the name of ‘Eva’.
(Tr. by Owen Barfield)
It was felt that the Paradise Play must be performed in the mood of piety befitting the Holy Night of Christmas. This was a deep conviction, and as anthroposophists, when we hear how the performers in the Christmas Plays rehearsed, how they prepared themselves, how they behaved before and during the performances of the Plays, we may well say: Is this not reminiscent of the attitude to truth adopted in the Mysteries? — although that, admittedly, was a matter of even greater significance. We know that in the Mysteries truth could not be received in any superficial mood of soul. Those who are aware to some extent of the holiness of truth know how absurd it is to imagine that it could be found in the arid, prosaic lectures of modern times, lectures in which there is no longer any indication that truth must be sought by a pure, unsullied, well-prepared soul and that it will not be found by a soul inwardly unsanctified, whose feelings are not duly prepared for its reception. There is no longer any conception of this in our age of materialism when truth itself, in the way it is presented, has become utterly prosaic.
In the Mysteries, truth might be approached only after the soul had passed through probationary tests of purity, inner freedom and fearlessness. Are we not reminded of this when we hear of the old man whom Karl Julius Schröer had known, who while he was assembling his players demanded that they should observe the ancient rules. Anyone who has lived among village people knows what the first rule signifies. The first rule was that during the whole period of preparation none of the actors might visit a brothel. In the village this was a matter of tremendous importance, signifying that the task lying before the actors must be steeped in piety. Nobody, while he was rehearsing, might sing an unworthy song; that was another rule. Further, nobody should desire anything more than a good, honest livelihood. That was the third rule. And the fourth was that he who was the authentic guardian of the traditional Christmas Plays should in all things be obeyed. It was an office not willingly transferred to anyone else.
In the second half of the nineteenth century people collected these Plays, although by then the old feelings associated with them had vanished. Later on I myself came across indications of the piety and fervour of scholars who still had some contact with country folk living in the scattered provinces of Hungary, for example, and were collecting the old Plays and Songs. When I was once in Hermannstadt about Christmastime I found that the teachers at the Gymnasium (Grammar School) there had been busily collecting these Plays and I came across the Herod Play. And so in the second half of the nineteenth century it was still possible to find people who were gathering evidence of old customs in regions which I have mentioned in connection with the Yuletide Festival. Do not let us think of anything theoretical but let us picture this warm, magical breath of the Christmas mood presented in these Plays. We then have a conception of mankind's belief in divine-spiritual reality — a belief acquired through the Christ Impulse.
This deep study of the Christmas Plays was something that could be highly instructive for the present age when the realisation that Art is the offspring of piety, of religion and of wisdom has long since been lost! In these days, when people are apt to regard Art as being detached from everything else, when Art has degenerated, for example, into formalism, much could be learnt from considering how Art in all its aspects was once regarded as a flower of human life. Simple as was the presentation of these Christmas Plays, it nevertheless indicated a flowering of man's whole nature. In the first place, the boys taking part in the Plays must be God-fearing, must absorb into their whole character something that was like an essence of the Christmas mood. They were also obliged to learn how to speak in strict rhythm. At the present time, when the Art of speaking in the ancient sense has been lost, there is no inkling of the vitally important role played by rhythm and rhyme, or of how every movement and gesture of men otherwise accustomed only to handling flails were rehearsed in minutest detail. The actors devoted themselves for weeks on end to practising rhythm and intonation, and were wholly dedicated to what they were to present. For a true understanding of Art, much could be learnt from those customs today when we have forgotten to such an extent how to speak artistically that hardly more than the intellectual meaning of what we have to say is expressed. The essential charm of these old Christmas Plays, however, lay in the fact that in rhythm, intonation and gesture the whole man became articulate. It was indeed a significant experience to have witnessed even the last remnants of these customs.
When the Christmas days were over, the actors taking. the parts of the Three Holy Kings walked through the villages, but at no other time than immediately after Christmas. I still remember seeing the Three Kings going through the villages from house to house. They carried long strips of lattice work attached to shears, a star being fixed to the end of the lattice work. The star shot out when the shears were opened and the lattice work swung back in harmony with the rhythmic movements made by the Three Kings. The Kings wore the most primitive costumes imaginable but their way of bringing the appropriate facts to the notice of the people at the right time of the year and their complete forgetfulness of self, induced a mood of soul that will be utterly incomprehensible to our age unless there can be a spiritual awakening. What should awaken in us as the life of the spirit, transformed through Anthroposophy into Art, can be presented in Plays which transcend the normal standards of the present age. Such Plays will not necessarily be connected with festivals but will be concerned with what is eternal in the human soul, unrelated to any particular season.
The Christ Impulse that was a reality for the souls of a certain epoch could become for us a living experience. True, in a certain sense we are already deeply rooted in an age when materialism in the outer world has taken such a hold in every sphere that if this Christ Impulse is to be renewed, stimuli quite different from the simple methods employed in the Middle Ages are called for. A revitalisation of man's inner life is necessary. The goal of Anthroposophy should be to draw forth the deepest forces of the human soul, forces quite different from those indicated to us by the present Christmas symbols and customs. True as it is that through our Anthroposophy we can become aware of the breath of enchantment which filled men's hearts during performances of the Paradise and Christ-Plays and during all the experiences connected with the festival seasons, it behoves us also to face the other fact — that the eternal Spirit must live in ever new forms through the evolution of humanity. Hence the spectacle of the Christmas symbols should be an incitement to infuse into the Christmas mood the spirit of anthroposophical thinking. Those who have a right feeling of the mysteries of the Christmas night will be filled with hope as they look forward to what will follow the Christmas Festival as a second Festival: they will look forward to Easter, the Festival of Resurrection, when He who was born in the Christmas night will be victorious.
Thus we are convinced that all cultural life, all spiritual life must be pervaded and inwardly charged with anthroposophical conceptions, anthroposophical feeling, thinking and willing. In the future, my dear friends, there will either be an anthroposophical spiritual science or no science at all, only a kind of applied technology; in the future there will either be a religion permeated with Anthroposophy, or no religion at all, merely external ecclesiasticism. In the future, Art will be permeated with Anthroposophy or the various arts will cease to exist, because cut off from the life of the human soul they can have only a brief, ephemeral existence. So we look towards something that shines with the same certainty as Theodora's prophecy of the renewal of the vision of Christ in the first Mystery Play, The Portal of Initiation. With as great a certainty there stands before our souls the resurrection of the anthroposophical spirit in Science, Religion, Art and in the whole life of humanity. The great Easter Festival of mankind is arrayed before our foreshadowing souls.
We can understand that still there are ‘mangers’, still lonely places in which there will be born, as yet in the form typical of childhood, that which is to be resurrected among men. In the Middle Ages people were led into the houses and shown the manger — an imitation of the stable with the ox and the ass — where the Child Jesus lay near his parents and the shepherds, and the people looking on were told: There lies the hope for the future of mankind!
May all that we cultivate in our anthroposophical centres become in the modern age new mangers in which, under the guidance of the Being we call Christ Jesus, the new spirit may come to life. Today this new spirit is still at the stage of childhood, still being born as it were in the mangers which are the centres of anthroposophical activities, and bearing the pledge of victory — the pledge that we, as mankind, will celebrate the great Easter Festival, the Resurrection Festival of humanity in the new spirit which we already anticipate and for which we strive — the spirit of Anthrophosophy.