Introduction: Georg Gerster (b. 1928), having earned a Ph.D. in German literature at Zurich University in 1956, embarked on a remarkable career as a freelance writer and photographer specializing in science—he has worked on every continent including Antarctica.
Shortly before Christmas 1957 he interviewed Jung for Die Weltwoche (Zurich), and his article was published on Christmas Day.
Dr. Jung: It is slightly condensed here.
Jung is speaking: An Indian swami knocked on the door of a villa on the Zurichberg.
“Forgive me for disturbing you,” he said to the householder.
“I come from Madras, and am making a study of local religious customs in Europe.
Perhaps you could . . .?”
The householder backed away.
“I’m afraid you have come to the wrong house.
We are enlightened people here.
Of course we go to church, at least now and then, but as you probably know we Protestants are not on the best of terms with the world of religious symbols.
If you were thinking of finding any religious customs here like the ones in your own country, I’m afraid you will go home disappointed.”
The swami retired crestfallen.
But let us suppose he comes back again, say in December, and catches the householder in the act of decorating the Christmas tree.
“But you told me you had no religious customs,” he says reproachfully.
“And yet you cut down a fir tree just to let it dry up in the drawing-room, and cover it with little candles which are no use at all for heating purposes.
Tell me, is this prescribed by your religion or its holy writings?”
The householder shakes his head in astonishment. “Not that I know of. It’s something that’s always been done….”
On one of my expeditions to Africa, I lived for a while with a tribe on the slopes of Mount Elgon, in Kenya.
Every morning, at sunrise, they stepped out of their huts, spat into their hands, and held them palm outwards to the sun.
Asked why they did this, they were at a loss for an answer.
They could only say: “It’s something that’s always been done. . . .”‘
Such ignorance has earned them the name of primitives in the judgment of the whites.
Now if our Indian friend were to publish in Madras his researches among the inhabitants on the slopes of the Ziirichberg, he would have some remarkable things to report.
“Although they deny it, they worship rabbit idols which lay colored eggs, and on the day they call Easter they look for these eggs in the garden, with much shouting.
They also worship, on another day they call Christmas, an illuminated tree which they hang all over with spangles, shiny balls, and sweetmeats.
Yet they do not know why they do this.
They are very small-minded and primitive people.”
The very existence of such things as the May-pole, the May-tree, and the greasy pole tell us a great deal about the Christian claim to the Christmas tree.
At best it was a matter of reinterpreting old customs, in much the same way as the feast of Christ’s nativity was grafted on to the already existing mid-winter vegetation festivals.
The tree-symbol has a very venerable history; the Finnish scholar Uno Holmberg, who investigated the symbolism of the tree of life, called it “mankind’s most magnificent legend.”‘
The countless changes of meaning the tree-symbol has undergone in the course of its history are proof of its richness and vitality.
The tree has a cosmic significance—it is the worldtree, the world-pillar, the world-axis.
Only think of Yggdrasill, the world-ash of Nordic mythology, a majestic, evergreen tree growing at the center of the world.
The tree, particularly its crown, is the abode of the gods.
Hence the village tree in India and the German village linden tree round which the villagers gather in the evenings: they are sitting in the shadow of the gods.
The tree also has a maternal aspect. In Germanic mythology the first human beings, Ask and Embla, come from the ash and the alder, as their names show.
Among the Yakuts of Siberia, a tree with eight branches was the birthplace of the first man.
He was suckled by a woman the upper part of whose body grew from its trunk.
These and many similar ideas are not invented, they simply came into men’s heads in bygone times.
It is a sort of natural revelation.
To give an example.
One evening an English District Commissioner in Nigeria heard a tremendous racket going on in the barracks of the native troops.
Six soldiers had to put a raving comrade in chains.
When the D.C. arrived, the black man lay quiet and was released at his order.
In explanation of his strange behavior, he said that he had wanted to go home because his tree was calling him, but now it was too late.
The D.C. learnt further that when he was a little child the man’s mother had once put him to rest under a tree while she went to work.
The tree then talked to him and made him promise that he would hasten to it without delay whenever he heard it calling and would bring it food.
Several times the tree had called him, said the soldier, and each time he had brought it the best he had in his miserable hut.
On this evening, far from his village, he had heard the tree calling for food, yet could not obey the voice because of his military duties.
Often, as here, the tree symbolizes the numen, the psychic fate of the person, his inner personality.’
In the dream of Nebuchadnezzar the king himself is symbolized by the tree.
There is also an old Rabbinic idea that the ageing Adam was granted one look into paradise.
In the branches of the withered tree there lay a child.
We might further mention the old patristic ideas of Christ as the tree of life.
Georg Gerster: Doesn’t the custom, still practiced today in many places, of planting a tree at the birth of a child also belong in this context?
Dr. Jung: Certainly. The reason for this unthinking ritual act is the participation mystique between man and the tree: both share the same fate.
Georg Gerster: To come back to the Christmas tree.
Haven’t several quite different sets of symbols fused into one?
The tree, the lights, the evergreen branches, the decorations, the distribution of Christmas presents—all these have their own symbolic value, and in numerous folk customs some of the cornponents are differently combined.
Dr. Jung: Agreed.
But let us not forget that the total combination, the lighted and decorated tree, is also found outside Christ’s nativity and in non-Christian contexts.
For instance in alchemy, that well-known reservoir for the symbols of antiquity.
(Here Jung produced an alchemical picture of the tree with the sun, the moon, and the seven planets in its branches, surrounded by allegories of the alchemical process of transformation.)
Now you know what the shining globes on the Christmas tree mean: they are nothing less than the heavenly bodies, the sun, moon, and stars.
The Christmas tree is the world-tree.
But, as the alchemical symbolism clearly shows, it is also a transformation symbol, a symbol of the process of self-realization.
According to certain alchemical sources, the adept climbs the tree—a very ancient shamanistic motif.
The shaman, in an ecstasy, climbs the magical tree in order to reach the upper world where he will find his true self.
By climbing the magical tree, which is at the same time a tree of knowledge, he gains possession of his spiritual personality.
To the eye of the psychologist, the shamanistic and alchemical symbolism is a projected representation of the process of individuation.
That it rests on an archetypal foundation is evidenced by the fact that patients who have not the slightest knowledge of mythology and folklore spontaneously produce the most amazing parallels to the historical tree-symbolism.’
Experience has taught me that the authors of these pictures were trying to express a process of inner development independent of their conscious volition.
Georg Gerster: Your conception of the Christmas tree is in no way disturbed by the fact that the custom dates only from the seventeenth century?
Dr. Jung: Why should that be any objection to my view that the Christmas tree, which in the longest and darkest night of the year symbolizes the return of the light, is archetypal?
On the contrary!
The way the Christmas tree has caught on in various countries and rapidly took root, so that most people actually believe it is an age-old custom, is only further proof that its appeal is grounded in the depths of the psyche, in the collective unconscious, and far exceeds that of the crib, the ox, and the ass.
Georg Gerster: In one of your books you remark that people decorate the Christmas tree without knowing what is at the back of this custom.
Dr. Jung: It is an old pagan one.
It is not I who use this expression but the Church. “Omnis haec observatio est paganorum,” it says in an old papal declaration with reference to decorating the houses with green branches.
This and similar customs are pagan.
And J. C. Dannhauer, an Evangelical theologian in Strasbourg, preached in the middle of the seventeenth century against the fir trees people set up in their houses at Christmas and bedecked with dolls and candles.
These old divines were not so wrong according to their lights.
Georg Gerster: Now that you have elucidated its background as an empirical investigator, the increasing popularity of the Christmas tree must rejoice your heart as a psychotherapist.
I conjecture you would agree that Christmas trees are healthy —as a measure of psychic hygiene?
Dr. Jung: Your conjecture is correct.
The archetypes are, so to speak, like many little appetites in us, and if, with the passing of time, they get nothing to eat, they start rumbling and upset everything.
The Catholic Church takes this very seriously.
Just now it is setting about reviving the old Easter customs.
The abstract greeting “Christ is risen!” no longer satisfies the craving of the archetypes for images.
So in order to set it at rest, they have had recourse to the hare-goddess, a fertility symbol.
And lately the Church has reintroduced an ancient fire ceremony: the Easter fire, the primordial fire, is lit not with matches but with flint and steel!
A tremendously nourishing procedure for man’s feelings.
The inner man has to be fed—a fact that moderns, with their frivolous trust in reason, often overlook to their own harm.
The Christmas tree is one of those customs which are food for the soul, nourishment for the inner man.
And the more primordial the material they use, the more promising these customs are for the future. ~Carl Jung, C.G. Jung Speaking: Interviews and Encounters, Pages 353-358.
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