Many popular images associated with Christmas are actually rooted in inner spiritual realities. But over time the deeper meaning becomes lost, and the symbol becomes an end unto itself. Perhaps the most iconic symbols are the Christmas tree and Santa Claus.
The use of evergreen wreaths goes back to the prehistory of Egypt, Greece, and Rome, while the more modern decorated Christmas tree was established in medieval Europe. The origins of Santa Claus go back to Saint Nicholas, a fourth-century Christian bishop in Greece famous for giving gifts to the poor.
The modern image of Santa was popularized by the famous poem beginning “’Twas the night before Christmas . . . ,” published in 1823. Our visual image comes from the illustrator Thomas Nast and his drawing of Santa Claus done in 1881, which was later adapted by others for use in advertising. From these roots has grown the jolly man with a red suit, a big belly, and a long, white beard who lives at the North Pole and brings gifts to children who have been good.
But as yogis, it is helpful to look past these cultural symbols and see the inner essence they represent. In this deeper sense, Santa Claus represents deeply seated spiritual memories—a sort of collective consciousness of our divine nature. God dwells within us, especially in the upper (north) chakras, and is joyful, benevolent, and the giver of the gifts of all good qualities and life itself.
The Christmas tree is an outer symbol of the astral spine and the chakras. The tree is an evergreen, maintaining its leaves throughout the winter, and therefore represents immortality. The lights, bulbs, and other ornaments represent inner lights and qualities. Gifts are spiritualized by appropriately being placed underneath the tree, much as they might be placed at the foot of an altar in another culture.
But the outer symbols lose their deeper meaning unless we balance them with inner realization. At Ananda we achieve this balance by celebrating “spiritual Christmas” with an all-day meditation where we try to merge with the Christ Consciousness. This is followed by “social Christmas,” with the usual parties and gift giving. By honoring both inner and outer realities, we find a lovely sense of integration in our lives.
Paramhansa Yogananda expressed this beautifully: “Exchange gifts with the thought of Christ and the thought of giving Him the gift of your heart and receiving the gift of Himself on the Christmas Tree of your calm consciousness, richly decorated and glistening with the Soul-qualities of all those you have met and loved. Through the portal of your meditation, let your imprisoned joy escape to, and rest in, the heart of Christ, which is in everything. Let your joy dance in the farthest planets, over the vastness of the blue, and in the nearest waves of your love. Then you will behold Christ cradled in every manifest thing.”