Christmas in the Pre-Christian Mystery Tradition 

Margarete van den Brink

Christmas is often thought to be an ancient pagan festival that at some point was 'Christianized' by the church and thus made into a Christian feast.

It is true that in ancient times, long before the birth of Christ, the Germans and the Celts as well as other ancient peoples, celebrated the 'winter solstice'.

This feast took place on December 25, the day on which the sun began its return journey into the northern sky. People celebrated and experienced that on that day, in that deep-winter night, the sun was born anew. In honour of this renewing life, the ancient Germans took a green tree, a pine tree, from the sacred forest and placed that in the centre of the village.

It was however only in the 18th century after Christ that lights were placed in this tree and that the tree was placed in homes.

The feast of the Invincible Sun

December 25 was a sacred day, not only for these northerly peoples, but also for the Romans, hundreds of years before the birth of Christ.

On December 25 the birth of the sun god Mithras was celebrated. Mithras, or Mitra as he was called in ancient Persia (modern Iran), was the personification of the light that conquers the darkness. The Romans called him 'Sol Invictus', the 'unconquerable sun'. December 25 was therefore called the 'Dies Natalis Solis Invicti', the birthday of the unconquerable sun.

In fact, in all the regions around the Mediterranean Sea the birth of the Sun God, worshipped under various names, was celebrated on this date. We know him as 'Ra' in ancient Egypt, as 'Helios' in ancient Greece, and as 'Mithras' or 'Mitra' in ancient Persia and in the Roman Empire.

In pre-Christian times, as in our day, December 25 was a feast of the reborn light. Light that penetrates the darkness and brings new life where there is darkness.

Why was this feast of the sun so widely celebrated on December 25? Was it only related to the pagan celebrations of the return of the sun? No, people in ancient times did not think so simplistically. The date was related to the special initiations that took place in the night of December 24 to December 25 in the pre-Christian mysteries. These initiations were accompanied by celebrations.

The mysteries

What were 'the mysteries'? They were spiritual training schools and centres where through special education and cults a connection was established with the spiritual world and with the high spiritual leaders that guide humanity.

The mysteries were found everywhere. We know them as the Egyptian mysteries, the Eleusinian mysteries, the mysteries of Samothrake, the Babylonian-Chaldean mysteries, the mysteries of the Persian Mithra cults, the Indian Brahma mysteries, the German mysteries, the Celtic mysteries, and so on. Everywhere in the northern hemisphere the pupils at the mystery schools experienced in the night from December 24 to 25 a certain ritual that depended on the degree of initiation.

What happened in these mystery schools?

In the first place, only a small numer of pupils was admitted. Only those who were considered suitable by the priests or Wise men to undergo an intensive spiritual schooling could enter.

The mystery pupils thoroughly absorbed what they were taught. This did not happen in the intellectual way as it is done today. In order to acquire knowledge, the mystery pupil was led to have certain visions and experiences. This gradually made him into a different person. The knowledge absorbed awakened certain forces, which enabled him to get to know an entirely different world. A world not accessible to the common eye and the common, everyday mode of thought.

Purification and Strengthening of the Soul

This process of change did not happen by itself. It required an intensive schooling of the soul. A training that contained three important elements:

  • A schooling in moral purity
  • Exercises to strengthen the inner spiritual strength
  • A deeply experienced insight into the truth.

This meant that the pupil, before he gained access to the great truths the mysteries had to offer, had to change thoroughly his emotions, feelings and way of thinking. Indeed all the experiences of his soul. For example, his feelings and sensibility had to be prepared in such a way that he could open himself up in full reverence and purity to what would be offered. This called for a radical re-education of his soul. A re-education based on inner exercises, all kinds of trials and on discipline.

What mattered was the way in which the soul of the student would meet that what would be revealed to him. What he would feel when he encountered the great truths and wisdom in the mysteries.

Thus the mystery pupil was prepared to experience during his initiation the higher divine. An experience of which Aristides, a Greek statesman of the sixth century BC, said:

'I thought I touched the Deity, to sense his approaching. I was between waking and sleeping. My spirit was very light, in a way no human can express and understand who has not been initiated'.

In this way the pupils in the mysteries were set on a path in which they gradually began to fanthom and penetrate the thoughts that underlie the foundation of the world. And to experience the divine beings that guide and weave their wisdom into earthly life.

The lesser and the greater mysteries

The ancient mystery schools had two different forms:

  1. an exoteric form, generally known as 'the lesser mysteries' and
  2. an esoteric form, called 'the greater mysteries'.

Every sincere candidate who wished a more in-depth schooling had access to the lesser mysteries.

Access to the greater mysteries however was open only to the few who would be able to ultimately go through one of the very high initiations, the Sun Ritual, and so become an adept, a Master. A Master is someone who is initiated into the deepest secret truths of the great mysteries. One who has become an 'Initiate', someone who 'knows'. The deepest secrets and mysteries were revealed only to those who during many years of trial and inner schooling had proven to be worthy knowing them.

These initiations, both in the lesser and the greater mysteries, brought the person step by step to ever higher levels of consciousness. But every time before a next degree of initiation could be reached, the soul had to be more deeply transformed and the spiritual powers further strengthened.

The preparation for the initiation

Before the initiations into the greater mysteries took place, the canditate for the initiation received great insights. In the first place, he was shown what the awakening of his spirit meant for the universe as a whole. In addition, he saw 'with the eye of the spirit', that is: clairvoyantly, what the entire course of humanity up to that point had been. His gaze was guided millions of years back into the past. 'Look at the point in time', the candidate was told, 'when our earth was not yet as it is now, where there was no sun or moon but both were still united with the earth. The time when the earth formed still one body with the sun and the moon. At that point man already existed, but he did not yet have a physical body. He was only a spiritual being. On this spiritual-soul man the sunlight did not shine from the outside. The sun was at that time still in the earth itself and shone through people and the earth'.

'Back then, the candidate heard and saw, the moment came when the sun broke away from the earth and a separation developed between the two'.

This led to the light of the sun shining on the earth and on humans from the outside: the situation as we know today.

With the separation of the sun from the earth, the earth became dark. And so the souls of the people.'That, the initiate was told, is the very first beginning of a development toward a future when the humans will find the light again, but then in their own heart. First they must learn to know the things of the earth with their outward-directed senses and by doing so develop their own personality'. The next step after that will be that the light will rise in them and so their higher spiritual self will be born.

It became clear to the candidate: 'From the light through the darkness to the light' - that is the course of human development.

Vision of the 'Sun at Midnight'

Only after all these kinds of insights had been acquired and the soul was sufficiently purified and strengthened, the last cultic actions were performed that would lead to the inner awakening of the candidate, the real initiation.

In pre-Christian times the linking with the inner light could be achieved only through special initiations in pupils that had been especially prepared.

The cultic actions or rites that directly led to the higher initiations, took place in the greater mysteries in the time of the year when the darkness is greatest. In the northern hemisphere this is around December 25. The priests or Wise men who performed the initiations knew that in this time, when the sun is in its lowest position but has already started on its return to the northern skies, very special spiritual forces are active in the universe. High spiritual beings who support these initiations into the deepest depths.

That was the reason why in all the greater mysteries of the northern hemisphere the higher sun-initiations took place during this time, so that high, divine angelic beings who guide humanity, could optimally take part in these initiations.

And this is why on that day, December 25, the birth of the Sun god was celebrated in ancient Egypt, Greece, Persia and the Roman Empire.

After the pupil through inner revelations had been properly prepared, he was taken at a specific time to a specific place: a cave or a subterranean crypt. There the real initiation took place.

Enshrouded in a certain cult and rites, in deep darkness, the 'inner eye' of the candidate was opened and he came to view the ethernal spiritual light.

The eternal spiritual light from which emanates everything in the cosmos and on earth. An event that in the mystery tradition is called 'the View of the Sun at Midnight'.

In the language of the mysteries it says:

'He who is truly initiated learns to truly view the sun at midnight, for in him the material has been loosened. Only the sun of the spirit lives in him and outshines the darkness in the world of matter and his soul'.

The experience of the initiate who underwent this experience was unimaginable deep. Experiencing 'the sun at midnight' is the most ultimate, the most elevated, the most blessed moment a human being can ever have: Being in the eternal light and detached from the earthly world of matter.

This sacred event took place, as stated before, at the moment when in nature the external sunlight was at its weakest: the midnight hour from December 24 to 25. There, at that moment, the divine light opened itself toward to him who was prepared, and in his soul his higher spiritual being was born.

The memory of this initiation event and the accompanying festivities, live on until this very day in the German name for Christmas: 'Weihnachten': 'blessed nights'. Up to our time in German-speaking countries the festivities of Christmas start at sunset on December 24. At that moment the 'Heilige Abend' or the 'Weihnacht' begins: the 'holy evening' or the 'holy night'.

In English-speaking countries likewise Christmas is celebrated in the first place on the evening of December 24: 'Christmas Eve'. All remnants of the pre-Christian mysteries!

The Sun Logos, the Spiritual Sun

The preceding shows that there was also in ancient times the awareness that there exists, in addition to the physical sun, a 'spiritual sun'. A spiritual sun which is, like the physical sun, also born out of darkness. What or who was this spiritual sun, that eternal light, that the candidates of the higher initiations viewed?

That spiritual sun was the Sun Logos, the divine Light of the World, which in those pre-Christian times was not yet on earth but on its way to the earth from the highest regions of the heavenly worlds.

In all pre-Christian mysteries the Sun Logos was viewed in the higher initiations in the sphere of the sun. For it was there where the Logos dwelled before he finally descended on earth.

The union with the divine Sun was the ultimate goal toward which all spiritual development in the mysteries was aimed. This divine Sun, the esoteric tradition says, is none other than the Logos, the divine Word that also bears the name 'Christ'. And Christ is the same God who at the beginning of our era became a human being in the Middle East, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

What the initiates in the higher degrees of the mysteries experienced in their sacred moments was that they were united with this divine Sun who would once descend on earth.

And it was this divine Sun who in ancient times was worshipped under names like Ra in Egypt, Helios in ancient Greece, and Mithras 'the Invincible Sun' in ancient Persia and the Roman Empire.

The new Life that conquers death and darkness

After the initiate in the Mithras mysteries had experienced the rise of the divine Sun, the Light of the world, and had been changed by this experience forever, he was taken to a cave. In that cave nothing could be seen except stone, lifeless matter.

Out of these stones he now saw grow ears of corn. That was the sign that a renewal had come about. New life that is born in dead, lifeless matter. New spiritual forces that bring light and life to what is dead, dark and empty.

Through all these visions and revelations the initiates came to know the grand picture of the future that was known in all the ancient mysteries: One day in the future of the earth this divine light will rise and shine in all of humanity. In each human being on earth. Then the earth will have reached its completion.

And the initiates realized: at a certain point in the future the physical earth we can see with our mortal eyes, will pass away and turn to dust. But a spiritual essence of the earth shall continue in the inner being of all people who have become radiant through the divine light. Then the earth and humanity will have been raised to a higher level of existence and consciousness. In an entirely new phase of being.

The Christ-mass

When after the coming to the earth of Christ, the Sun God, Christendom further developed over time, it did so while inwardly bearing this high ideal.

It was felt and experienced that Christ, the immortal Sun Spirit who had united himself with humanity and the earth, is not only the bearer of all life renewing forces in the world, but is also the bearer of the spiritual rebirth in human beings, and therefore of the inner light.

That is why it was decided to celebrate the birthday of Jesus Christ - like that of all the other, earlier manifestations of his high being: the sun gods - on December 25. By doing so 'they who know', the initiates of the Greater Mysteries, indicated that they were fully aware which high divine being had come to the earth to live in Jesus Christ.

In the early times of Christianity de Christians celebrated in the night from December 24 to 25 in caves in the mountains, a cult, a mass. At midnight, when everything was covered in deep darkness, a sea of light lit up, bringing people to ecstasy.

Thus the early church connected symbolically with what was experienced in the pre-Christian mysteries: the birth of the eternal light, the divine Sun Spirit, whose divine forces penetrate the darkness and bring new life to all creatures on earth.

And the mass at midnight? That became 'Christmas', the 'Christ-mass', the feast of Christ, 'the Invincible Sun' of the ancient mysteries.

Thus in our time truths and cultic actions live on that already existed in the pre-Christian mysteries. Up to this very day they influence our life, our soul and the way we experience and celebrate Christmas.



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