Have you ever noticed when you re-read a book that new gems are found, where you didn’t see them the first time? I have been re-reading Marie-Louise von Franz’ books on the interpretation of fairy tales, turning down corners and writing words on them. Each page where she discusses a new symbol has got a penciled word on the “dog ears”. The highlighting from previous reads remains, sometimes in three different colors. But today I hit a section which was unmarked and yet remarkable.
She was telling the story of how she encountered a young man, a Communist, who “had gotten into that absolutely flat materialistic rationalism of the Communist viewpoint”. This is not so different from the scientific materialism taught in the “hard” sciences here in America, where everything must conform to the theoretical assumptions of the discipline. She says he was an artist who had never heard of Jungian psychology. She was explaining various concepts and he asked her what the Christmas tree meant. She explained it in symbolic form,
“I simply told him that the Christmas tree meant the supernatural inner process of the maturing of the human being, circumscribing the process of individuation; and that during this inner maturing process, again and again certain lights dawned upon one, for the process of maturing is simultaneously a process of gradual illumination. (Individuation in Fairy Tales, 1977, 1990, p. 169)”
This explanation resulted in a big surprise for the doctor. She goes on to say that the artist “banged on the table so that I jumped, and actually roared like a lion in his emotion, crying, “Now I understand!” ” She remarks that her explanation “may not have been very deep, but if someone has been brought up on stones instead of bread he will react like that.” What she had done is connect the symbol to the archetypal unconscious within the young man, activating his inner psychic dimension.
Stones are inert matter, symbols of the theories in materialistic science. This young man had not been given nourishing stuff upon which to grow his soul. He had not been given bread, which must go through the mixing and kneading, resting and rising, and then the baking which brings about transformation. Bread is symbolic of transformation and is used as the main symbol in the Christian mystery, which must be eaten before it can transform the person consuming it. Even without a background in the symbolic interpretation of the maturation process, which all humans go through, the artist is connected to the meaning of the symbol by Dr. von Franz. Given a meaningful contex the symbol of the Christmas tree hits home, instantly lighting up the artist. No doubt his being an artist was what made this realization happen so quickly. The ground was prepared by his creative expression.
What I noticed about this story was how I had not highlighted it in the past. In a way that made sense to me, because the story is an aside, where von Franz strays from her main discussion. But I suspect there was a deeper reason for my not seeing this passage in previous years. The Christmas tree has been a very powerful image throughout my life. It has brought me good and bad memories. The last Christmas I celebrated with my estranged wife brought previously denied and unconscious material to the surface. I had been probing my unconscious feelings with the help of an analyst and was able to change old patterns because of the work we were doing. During Christmas dinner with my family, my sons, their wives, and my granddaughters were sitting at the table as I became aware of anger rising up within me. This was totally new to me in the family context. Normally I wouldn’t even be aware of my feelings. But this time was different, I was feeling hurt and angry. And I knew why. My wife was baiting me with subtle references to things which had hurt and disappointed her in our early marriage, before the children were born. I guess she felt our communication was private, too subtle for our children and grandchildren to understand. Her references were shrouded, but I knew what she was saying and, for the first time, conscious of what she was doing beneath the surface. The boys were also aware. They were feeling the rising tension as was I, but they were used to this drama and were remaining silent. I realized my therapy sessions were making a difference, when I did something totally spontaneous and surprising. I apologized for having to leave early, I told them that I was expected at the Crisis Clinic. That was a lie, but one which worked. I was excused from ruining another Christmas. My response from that day on was never to put up another Christmas tree.
When my granddaughters came to visit my apartment the following year, they were stunned. I had decorated the entire house with fir branches which the neighbor had trimmed from his trees. Where the Christmas tree should have been, there were giant vulture wings pinned to the dining room wall. In the center of them was a painting of a Zuni elder, who was honored like a Greek Orthodox icon. He was the symbolic expression of my spirit guide Meyalo. The girls asked, “Papou, where did you get the angel wings?”. Their dad, who had grown up on our Native American celebrations every Sunday, just smiled. His beautiful wife, the mother of the girls, was shocked, especially with all the cobwebs in the rafters and the corners of the room. She was terrified of spiders. I told her “they keep the bugs in check; we have a symbiotic relationship”. And then the girls asked me the inevitable question, “Papou (grandfather) where’s your tree?” I told the truth this time. “Yaya (grandmother) has it. She takes care of all the lights and ornaments now. You’ll see it at her house.” They smiled, but were puzzled. After 30 years of marriage it was just too painful for me to put up a Christmas tree.
So when I read von Franz just now, I realized that this Christmas tree episode, and all the others before it, were the lights on my inner tree. They have been lessons, gifts of sorts. They are the lights which have dawned upon me over the years. They are the lights of spiritual growth, of “gradual illumination”. Now that I have accepted the process of separation and becoming an individual as it has played out in my relationships with my wife, my children, friends and family, I was able to see the previously invisible (hidden) passage on page 169. And like the artist in von Franz’ story, I understand the Christmas tree as a symbol of the process of individuation, as the treasure hard to attain.
I think this dawning realization has been in the making for a few years now. My artistic daughter-in-law started the transformation. Every Christmas since her dad died, she brings out her costumes and dresses me as a wizard, Merlin or Dumbledore, and then as Santa Claus. This ritual began when her atheistic, Zen meditating companion, my spirit son, the Raven, would resist putting up “the stupid tree”. He was raised on Christian traditions which he could not accept. Being extremely rational, he saw cutting millions of trees down as wasteful and meaningless. I love the Cat, so I usually help her put up the Christmas tree. Since I have been spending Christmas with the Raven and the Cat, we have been mellowing like vintage wine, and I have been gaining weight. Now I actually enjoy being mistaken for Santa. I see the love and the renewal of life at the Solstice time in everyone. And I have fun pretending to be Santa. I get to laugh a lot, something which suits me. And now I have a new understanding of Saint Nickolas and the Christmas tree.