Santa’s Family Tree in Pictures

Santa Claus has an old and lively family. Like all families, it is filled with stories, but here I want to focus on the images before the stories. Following multiple branches through time is not easy to represent, and I’ve opted to move first down a secondary branch from Odin to Santa Claus and then back up the heaviest branch of the family (with several strange forks) to Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra (modern-day Demre, Turkey). These sixty-six images from Santa’s family tree represent all of the basic characters and secondary branches within the these two primary ancestral lines:

01_Y Odin-cabalgando-a-Sleipnir 02

Above: Tjängvide image stone (dated between A.D. 700 and 1000) which features Odin riding his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir.

01_Y Odin-cabalgando-a-Sleipnir

Above: Detail from the Tjängvide image stone focused on Odin and Sleipnir. Odin was often described riding through the sky with animal companions in the Wild Hunt. Some have suggested that Sleipnir’s eight legs inspired the original number for Santa’s eight reindeer (before Rudolph joined in the 1900s and made it nine).

Three figures 12th-century Skog tapestry have been interpreted as the Norse gods Odin Thor and Freyja

Above: These three figures from the Skog tapestry (dated to the 1100s) have been interpreted as the Norse gods Odin, Thor and Freyja.

02_Y odin_with_his_two_crows_hugin_and_munin_poster

Above: Illustration of Odin with his two ravens, Huginn and Muninn, from a 1760 Icelandic manuscript.

03_Y NKS_1867_4to,_97v,_Odin_on_Sleipnir

Above: Illustration of Odin on his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir, from a 1760 Icelandic manuscript.

04_Y Odin_rides_to_Hel W G Collingwood 1908

Above: “Odin Rides to Hel” by W.G. Collingwood, 1908.

05_Y Odin's Hunt Malmström by august-malmstrom 1850s to 1901

Above: “The Wild Hunt” by August Malmström (lived 1829 to 1901), illustration of Odin riding with his wolves and ravens.

06_Y GeorgVonRosenOdin1886

Above: “Odin in the guise of a wanderer” by Georg von Rosen in 1886. (Appeared in the 1893 Swedish translation of the Poetic Edda.)


Above: Frontispiece to John Taylor’s pamphlet “The Vindication of Christmas” from 1652 (printed date 1653).

Father Christmas in Josiah King two pamphlets of 1658 and 1678

Above: Father Christmas in an illustration used by two Josiah King pamphlets (1658 and 1678).

07_Y yule goat The Book of Christmas 1836

Above: from The Book of Christmas by Thomas Kibble Hervey with “Old Christmas” shown riding a yule goat, 1836.

08_Y father christmas with Yule Goat

Above: Father Christmas with the Yule Goat (date and source unknown).


Above: “Christmas and his children” by Robert Seymour, 1836.

11_Y Dicken's christmas carole origional christmas present

Above: A colorized edit of an engraving by John Leech in 1843 for the “Ghost of Christmas Present” in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (illustration from first edition).


Father Christmas from the Illustrated London News 1847.

09_Y Old Father Christmas_with_the_Yule_Log,_Illustrated_London_News,_23_Dec_1848

Above: “Christmas with the Yule Log” by Alfred Crowquill (Alfred Henry Forrester), 1848 (Illustrated London News).

arthur-rackahm-father-christmas ca 1900

Above: “Father Christmas” by Arthur Rackahm (c. 1900).

arthur rackham old st nick 1907

Above: “Old St. Nick” by Aarthur Rackham from 1907. [Note: This image could fit below among the Saint Nicholas branch of the family, but I include it here because these two illustrations by Rackham show how Father Christmas and St. Nick are two distinct figures. This image of “Old St. Nick” also demonstrates a critical secondary-branch in the Saint Nicholas clan where the human saint is replaced by an elf or a gnome-like creature, often from the far north and living underground. This is the source of the “Jolly Old St. Nick” name that later becomes associated with Santa Claus along with ideas about where and how he lives.]

A-Merry-Christmas-made-in-Saxony-ca 1900

Above: Saxon postcard c. 1900 from the Kemper Chambers Collection.

victorian father christmas

Above: illustration of Father Christmas from the Victorian era (1837-1901, exact date and source unknown).

Victorian English Father Christmas in Green

Above: illustration of Father Christmas from the Victorian era (1837-1901, exact date and source unknown).

Father_Christmas_Tuck_Photo_Oilette_postcard 1919

Above: Father Christmas from a 1919 Tuck postcard (by the London company of Raphael Tuck & Sons), Photo Oilette series number C7513).

12_Y Father Christmas Tolkien

Above: The first Father Christmas letter by J.R.R. Tolkien to his children, 1920.

13_Y Father Christmas in Narnia

Above: Illustration of Father Christmas by Pauline Diana Baynes in the 1950 first edition of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (colorization added).

father christmas blue

Above: Illustration of Father Christmas (date and source unknown).

father christmas

Above: Illustration of Father Christmas (date and source unknown).

santa claus photo

Above: Contemporary image of Santa Claus. [Note: Although Father Christmas and Santa Claus are separate figures, several indirect influences on Santa Claus can be noted from the above members of the family. Below, after two more contemporary Santa images, the images from here on will reverse direction in time as we move back up the main branch in Santa’s family tree toward Saint Nicholas.]

Orthodox cross adorned with Santa 2015 Child in York Pa

Above: 2015 photo that I took at my Orthodox (Antiochian) church showing a cross decorated by a child with a Santa Claus.

santa-claus photo

Above: One more contemporary image of Santa Claus.

Reconstruction of St Nicholas by Professor Caroline Wilkinson

Above: 2014 reconstruction of Saint Nicholas by Dr. Caroline Wilkinson with Face Lab (Liverpool John Moores University). Based on thousands of minutely-detailed measurements and x-ray photographs (roentgenography) from the skull and other bones of St. Nicholas’ (at the request of the Vatican) by anatomy professor Luigi Martino when the bones were removed temporarily from their crypt in the Basilica di San Nicola (Bari, Italy) during the 1950s.

Reconstruction Image Foundry Studios produced a 3D Visualisation of the Real Face of St Nicholas

Above: Initial reconstruction and computer generated image of Saint Nicholas by Dr. Caroline Wilkinson from 2004 (with Image Foundry Studios and Anand Kapoor).

Kris Kringle 02

Above: young Kris Kringle (later Santa Claus) from the 1970 film “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town.”

Kris Kringle holiday-specials-watching-slide

Above: young Kris Kringle (later Santa Claus) from the 1970 film “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town.”

Christkind 2019-20 Benigna Munsi

Above: German girl dressed as the Christkind in a traditional German protestant Christmas celebration. The name “Kris Kringle” comes from an Americanization of Christkind (German for “Christ Child”). This character developed after Martin Luther introduced it to refocus German Christmas traditions away from Saint Nicholas and back toward God’s incarnation as Jesus Christ. However, the Christkind developed into its own figure as an angelic child that sometimes appeared alongside both Jesus Christ and Saint Nicholas.

Coke Santa by Haddon Sundblom 1959 large 01

Above: Santa illustration by Haddon Sundblom for Coca-Cola in 1959.

Coke Santa by Haddon Sundblom 1934 large 02

Above: Santa illustration by Haddon Sundblom for Coca-Cola in 1934.

Coke Santa by Haddon Sundblom 1931 01

Above: another Santa illustration by Haddon Sundblom for Coca-Cola in 1931.

Coke Santa 1931 02

Above: Santa illustrated by Haddon Sundblom for Coca-Cola in 1931.

A-Joyful-Christmas-printed-in-Germany-ca 1908

Above: Card featuring Saint Nicholas printed in Germany c. 1908. Given as a comparison to the developments taking place in the United States.

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus 1902 children book L Frank Baum illustrated Mary Cowles Clark

Above: cover of The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, a 1902 children’s book written by L. Frank Baum (best know for authoring The Wonderful Wizard of Oz) and illustrated by Mary Cowles Clark.

Santa Claus Missouri History Museum Photographs and Prints Collections c 1900

Christmas color postcard with illustration of Santa Claus inserting a frightened child into sack c. 1900 (Missouri History Museum, photographs and prints collections, ID: N39366).

N-Pole-Wireless-Co-Santa-Claus-Proprietor-ca 1900 Kemper Chambers Collection

Above: “N. Pole Wireless Co Santa Claus Proprietor” c. 1900 from the Kemper Chambers Collection.

10_Y Goody_Santa_Claus_1889

Above: 1889 cover of the songbook “Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride” by Katharine Lee Bates (best known as the writer of “America the Beautiful”).

Nast Hello Little One 1884

Above: “Hello Little One” by Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly in 1884.

Nast Santa Claus or St Nick by Thomas Nast for Harper s Weekly in 1881

Above: illustration of “Santa Claus” or “St Nick” by Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly in 1881.

Nast And-to-All-a-Good-Night-1879

Above: “And to All a Good Night” by Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly in 1879.

Nast Collection The-coming-of-Santa-Claus-1872 Jolly Old Elf arrival to pets

Above: “The coming of Santa Claus” (the “Jolly Old Elf” arrives to the pets) by Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly in 1872.

Nast Visit of Saint Nicholas by Thomas Nast 1869

Above: “Visit of Saint Nicholas” by Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly in 1869.

Nast first drawing of Saint Nick, Santa Claus in CampWeekly Cover-January-3-1863 Thomas Nast

Above: “Santa Claus in Camp” was the first of the many Thomas Nast illustrations of Santa Claus for Harper’s Weekly. This was the cover on January 3, 1863. This Civil-War-era image was the most critical step in the development of a unified nation-wide identity for Santa Claus.

Santa Claus in Camp

Above: another image of Thomas Nast’s “Santa Claus in Camp” from 1863.

Swan-pulled-strawberry-sled-with-demons-reprinted-1870s-post card Kemper Chambers Collection

Above: Small demons on swans pull “Santa Claus” in a strawberry sled in this 1870s post card from the Kemper Chambers Collection.

Bram van der Vlugt nog één keer Sinterklaas

Above: a Dutch celebration of a traditional visit from “Sinter Klaas” accompanied by Zwarte Piet (Dutch meaning “Black Pete”). This traditional figure among largely Protestant Dutch colonists in New York city (originally called New Amsterdam) likely provided the primary basis for the name “Santa Claus” as well as for his basic features and costume. [Note: this tradition of Zwarte Piet has sad and hurtful aspects with regard to the portrayal of different people groups. See next image. Many other “companions of Saint Nicholas” showed up in other countries throughout Europe: Père Fouettard (French), Knecht Ruprecht (German meaning Farmhand/Servant Rupert/Robert), Belsnickel or Pelznikel (German meaning “Walloping-Nickel”), Kriskinkle (German for “Christmas woman”) and Krampus (a fearful figure in Austria, Bavaria, South Tyrol, Slovenia, and Croatia probably originating in the pre-Christian Alpine pagan folklore).]

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet or Black Pete

Above: a contemporary cartoon by Andy Warner (2013 for an article showing the concern of parents at the troubling associations with Sinter Klaas as he is typically surrounded by numerous figures in costume as Zwarte Piet. Although the idea was much older in other parts of Europe, the idea that Sinterklaas had a servant was first printed in Dutch within a book by Jan Schenkman called Sint Nicolaas en Zijn Knecht (English: Saint Nicholas and His Servant, 1850).


Above: Illustration from Jan Schenkman’s book Sint Nicolaas en Zijn Knecht (English: Saint Nicholas and His Servant, 1850).

Sinterklaas Dutch

Above: one more image of a traditional Dutch Sinterklaas costume. [Note: Another theory sometimes given for the name “Santa Claus” is that it was an American mispronunciation of the saint’s name as used by Italian immigrants: “Sant Nikolas.” However, given how early “Santa Claus” appears in print in New York city, it is most likely derived from the Dutch “Sinterklaas.”]

Old Santeclaus with Much Delight 1821 page 1

Above: illustration from page 1 of “Old Santeclaus with Much Delight,” an anonymous children’s poem published in New York in 1821. [Note: A few other publication dates to note are: 1809 with A History of New York by Washington Irving (a satirical book that described the Dutch settlers’ Christmas traditions including a jolly St. Nicholas who delivered presents and flew over houses in a cart pulled by horses), 1823 with “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (better known subsequently as “Twas the Night Before Christmas”) by American Bible scholar Clement Clarke Moore (first published anonymously and then under Moore’s name in 1844 and with some arguing that the poem was actually by Henry Beekman Livingston, Jr. from a few years before) and 1836 with “The Knickerbocker’s Rescue Santa Claus” by James Kirke Paulding (1778–1860) from The Book of Saint Nicholas.]


Above: Looking again at contemporary developments outside of the United States, this is a German “Christkind” illustration from 1893 (Stadt Gottes, Illustrierte Zeitschrift für das katholische Volk, Sammelband). Children are throwing open a window to watch an infant Christ and angels descending to them with a Christmas tree.

Knecht_Ruprecht_und_das_Christkind 1800s

Above: “Knecht Ruprecht und das Christkind” from the 1800s in Germany, showing how the Protestant figure of the “Christ child” was mixed with older figures such as Knecht Ruprecht (one of the German companions of Saint Nicholas).

Krampus victorian xmas 02

Above: Krampus in a Victorian era Christmas card. Krampus was first connected to Saint Nicholas in the 1600s. After a period of repressing this figure in many areas, postcards featuring Krampus were extremely popular again in the 1800s and 1900s.

Krampus 02

Above: Krampus in a Christmas card from the 1870s.

Krampus 03

Above: Krampus in a Victorian era Christmas card.

Saint Nicholas and Krampus visit a Viennese home 1896 illustration

Above: Saint Nicholas and Krampus visit a Viennese home in a 1896 illustration.

1863 Otto von Reinsberg-Düringsfeld Das_festliche_Jahr_img444_Weihnachtsmasken

Above: 1863 illustration of a visit from Saint Nicholas and Krampus by Otto von Reinsberg-Düringsfeld in Das festliche Jahr in Sitten.

St Nicholas with Money bag icon Our Brother For the Birds

Above: traditional iconography showing the story of Saint Nicholas saving a man’s three daughters from slavery by secretly bringing them money during the night.


Above: traditional icon of Saint Nicholas. Prior to the 1600s, images of Saint Nicholas were all religious icons used for prayer and veneration (primarily within the life and services of local churches). These icons contained only the saint (with no companions, although he was sometimes surrounded by smaller images of fellow saints as well as his Lord Jesus Christ).

Icon veliky-novgorod-russian-st-nicholas-painted-on-wooden

Above: traditional icon of Saint Nicholas.


Above: traditional icon of Saint Nicholas.

Icon St Nickolas from monastery of St Catherine in Sinai 10th cent

Above: traditional icon of Saint Nicholas dating from 900s. This icon is from the monastery of Saint Catherine in Sinai, and it is the oldest image of the saint that is still in existence.

To recap, the images above represent these two main branches of Santa’s ancestral tree:

1. Christian and Wider-European Folklore Branch: Saint Nicholas of Myra (the town of Demre in today’s Turkey) lived from A.D. 270 to 343. He grew to be deeply loved throughout the Christian world (including Africa and Asia). Many stories and figures were connected to him in later European folklore. Key names from this family clan:

  • Saint Nicholas
  • Companions of Saint Nicholas
    • Knecht Ruprecht: German meaning Farmhand (or Servant) Rupert (or Robert)
    • Belsnickel or Pelznikel: German meaning “Walloping” and “Nickel” (from “Nikolaus”)
    • Kriskinkle: German for “Christmas woman” a variation on Belsnickel
    • Zwarte Piet: Dutch meaning “Black Pete” a serving person who was a Spanish Moor [Note: this and the French equivalent below clearly have deeply sad and hurtful aspects with regard to the portrayal of different people groups.]
    • Père Fouettard: French equivalent to Zwarte Piet
    • Krampus: Austria, Bavaria, South Tyrol, Slovenia, and Croatia a fearful figure probably originating in the pre-Christian Alpine traditions and sometimes accompanying Saint Nicholas
  • German Protestant Folklore Branch: Martin Luther wanted to recenter Christmas on the incarnation of Jesus as an infant. In German protestant traditions, the Christkind became a sprite-like child, usually depicted with blond hair and angelic wings. Sometimes the Christkind is shown as a specific angel bringing the presents (as it appears in some processions together with an image of little Jesus Christ). Later, the Christkind was also said to make rounds delivering gifts with Saint Nicholas as one of his companions. In United States, the term developed into Kris Kringle which was then sometimes used in stories as a proper name for the person with the title of Santa Claus. Key names from this family clan:
    • Christkind
    • Kris Kringle (developed from “Christkind” later in the United States)

2. British Pagan and Folklore Branch: Stories of Odin likely developed among (or were introduced to) the Germanic Iron Age peoples. With over 170 names, Odin is the god with the most names among the pantheon of the Germanic peoples. Key names from this family clan:

  • Odin
  • Yule Father
  • Father Christmas

This family tree culminates in the images and stories of Santa Claus as they developed in the United States. Do in large part to product marketing and popular entertainment, these stories and images of Santa Claus have also spread to many other parts of the world (including back into many of the originating countries such as Holland, England and Germany):

  • Sinter Klaas (Dutch meaning “Saint Nicholas,” although another version of the story is that Santa Claus comes from Americans imitating the pronunciation of Saint Nickolas by Italian immigrants).
  • Santa Claus

P.S. Some of you might appreciate these excerpts from a delightful GKC essay on Santa Claus and the giftedness of life.

P.P.S. Here are some more illustrations by Mary Cowles Clark from The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by Frank L. Baum in 1902 (which I have read).

Baum The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus 1902 children book L Frank Baum illustrated Mary Cowles Clark 01

Above: a wood nymph finds the baby who grows up to be Santa Claus.

Baum The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus 1902 children book L Frank Baum illustrated Mary Cowles Clark 03

Above: bringing the baby to the king.

Baum The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus 1902 children book L Frank Baum illustrated Mary Cowles Clark 02

Above: the child who grows up to be Santa Claus.

Baum illustrated Mary Cowles Clark

Above: Santa Claus as a grown man.

If you would find the newborn king

From the sermons of Meister Eckhart. Sermon One (Pf 1, Q 101, QT 57):

Here, in time, we are celebrating the eternal birth which God the Father bore and bears unceasingly in eternity, because this same birth is now born in time, in human nature. St. Augustine says, ‘What does it avail me that this birth is always happening, if it does not happen in me? That it should happen in me is what matters.’ We shall therefore speak of this birth, of how it may take place in us and be consummated in the virtuous soul, whenever God the Father speaks His eternal Word in the perfect soul. For what I say here is to be understood of the good and perfected man who has walked and is still walking in the ways of God; not of the natural, undisciplined man, for he is entirely remote from, and totally ignorant of this birth. There is a saying of the wise man, “When all things lay in the midst of silence, then there descended down into me from on high, from the royal throne, a secret word.” This sermon is about that Word.

…Now I say, as I said before, that these words and this act are only for the good and perfected people, who have so absorbed and assimilated the essence of all virtues that these virtues emanate from them naturally, without their seeking; and above all there must dwell in them the worthy life and lofty teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ. They must know that the very best and noblest attainment in this life is to be silent and let God work and speak within.

…Now observe the use and the fruit of this secret Word and this darkness. The Son of the heavenly Father is not born alone in this darkness, which is his own: you too can be born a child of the same heavenly Father and of none other, and to you too He will give power. Now observe how great the use is! For all the truth learned by all the masters by their own intellect and understanding, or ever to be learned till Doomsday, they never had the slightest inkling of this knowledge and this ground. Though it may be called a nescience, an unknowing, yet there is in it more than in all knowing and under­ standing without it, for this unknowing lures and attracts you from all understood things, and from yourself as well. This is what Christ meant when he said, “Whoever will not deny himself and will not leave his father and mother, and is not estranged from all these, is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:37), as though he were to say, he who does not abandon creaturely externals can be neither conceived nor born in this divine birth. But divesting yourself of yourself and of everything external does truly give it to you. And in very truth I be­lieve, nay, I am sure, that the man who is established in this cannot in any way ever be separated from God. I say he can in no way lapse into mortal sin. He would rather suffer the most shameful death, as the saints have done before him, than commit the least of mortal sins. I say such people cannot willingly commit or consent to even a venial sin in themselves or in others if they can stop it. So strongly are they lured and drawn and accustomed to that, that they can never turn to any other way; to this way are directed all their senses, all their powers.

May the God who has been born again as man assist us to this birth, eternally helping us, weak men, to be born in him again as God. Amen.

Sermon Two (Pf 2, Q 102, QT 58):

“Where is he who is born king of the Jews?” Now observe, as regards this birth, where it takes place: “Where is he who is born?” Now I say as I have often said before, that this eternal birth occurs in the soul precisely as it does in eternity, no more and no less, for it is one birth, and this birth occurs in the essence and ground of the soul.

…Your heart is often moved and turned away from the world. How could that be but by this illumination? It is so charming and delightful that you become weary of all things that are not God or God’s. It draws you to God and you become aware of many a prompting to do good, though ignorant of whence it comes. This inward inclination i s in n o way due to creatures o r their bidding, for what creatures direct or effect always comes from without. But by this work it is only the ground (of the soul) that is stirred, and the freer you keep yourself the more light, truth, and discernment you will find. Thus no man ever went astray for any other reason than that he first departed from this, and then sought too much to cling to outward things. St. Augustine says there are many who sought light and truth, but only outside where it was not to be found. Finally they go out so far that they never get back home or find their way in again. Thus they have not found the truth, for truth is within, in the ground, and not without. So he who would see light to discern all truth, let him watch and become aware of this birth within, in the ground. Then all his powers will be illuminated, and the outer man as well. For as soon as God inwardly stirs the ground with truth, its light darts into his powers, and that man knows at times more than anyone could teach him. As the prophet says, “I have gained greater understanding than all who ever taught me.” You see then, because this light cannot shine or lighten in sinners, that is why this birth cannot possibly occur in them. This birth cannot coexist with the darkness of sin, even though it takes place, not in the powers, but in the essence and ground of the soul.

…The blessed see God in a single image, and in that image, they discern all things. God too sees Himself thus, perceiving all things in Himself. He need not turn from one thing to another, as we do. Suppose in this life we always had a mirror before us, in which we saw all things at a glance and recognized them in a single image, then neither action nor knowledge would be any hindrance to us. But we have to turn from one thing to another, and so we can only attend to one thing at the expense of another. For the soul is so firmly at­tached to the powers that she has to flow with them wherever they flow, because in every task they perform the soul must be present and attentive, or they could not work at all. If she is dissipated by attending to outward acts, this is bound to weaken her inward work. For at this birth God needs and must have a vacant free and unencum­bered soul, containing nothing but Himself alone, and which looks to nothing and nobody but Him. As to this, Christ says, “Whoever loves anything but me, whoever loves father and mother or many other things is not worthy of me. I did not come upon earth to bring peace but a sword, to cut away all things, to part you from sister, brother, mother, child, and friend that in truth are your foes” (Matt. 10:34-36; d. 19:28). For whatever is familiar to you is your foe. If your eye wanted to see all things, and your ear to hear all things and your heart to remember all things, then indeed your soul would be dissipated in all these things.

Accordingly a master says, ‘To achieve an interior act, a man must collect all his powers as if into a corner of his soul where, hiding away from all images and forms, he can get to work.’ Here, he must come to a forgetting and an unknowing. There must be a stillness and a silence for this Word to make itself heard. We cannot serve this Word better than in stillness and in silence: there we can hear it, and there too we will understand it aright – in the unknowing. To him who knows nothing it appears and reveals itself.

…Here we must come to a transformed knowledge, and this un­ knowing must not come from ignorance, but rather from knowing we must get to this unknowing.6 Then we shall become knowing with divine knowing, and our unknowing will be ennobled and adorned with supernatural knowing. And through holding ourselves passive in this, we are more perfect than if we were active.

…Our bliss lies not in our activity, but in being passive to God. For just as God is more excellent than creatures, by so much is God’s work more excellent than mine. It was from His immeasurable love that God set our happiness in suffering/ for we undergo more than we act, and receive incomparably more than we give; and each gift that we receive prepares us to receive yet another gift, indeed a greater one, and every divine gift further increases our receptivity and the desire to receive something yet higher and greater. Therefore some teachers say that it is in this respect the soul is commensurate with God. For just as God is boundless in giving, so too the soul is boundless in receiving or conceiving. And just as God is omnipotent to act, so too the soul is no less profound to suffer; and thus she is transformed with God and in God.8 God must act and the soul must suffer, He must know and love Himself in her; she must know with His knowledge and love with His love, and thus she is far more with what is His than with her own, and so too her bliss is more dependent on His action than on her own.

…In this way your unknowing is not a lack but your chief perfection, and your suffering your highest activity. And so in this way you must cast aside all your deeds and silence your faculties, if you really wish to experience this birth in you. If you would find the newborn king, you must outstrip and abandon all else that you might find. That we may outstrip and cast behind us all things unpleasing to the newborn king, may He help us who became a human child in order that we might become the children of God. Amen.

These passages are from The Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart, translated and edited by Maurice O’C. Walshe (revised with a foreword by Bernard McGinn). Taken from an edition by Crossroad Publishing Company, copyrighted 2009 by The English Sangha Trust, this work is a reissue of the three-volume Meister Eckhart: Sermons and Treatises translated and edited by M. O’C. Walshe. Sermon three in this collection continues to speak of this birth in us while continuing into the childhood of Jesus Christ with an exposition of “I must be about my Father’s business.”

I came across these sermons when seeking to find the source of this passage that is attributed to Meister Eckhart in many places (but without any full citation that I can find beyond “as quoted in Christianity by Joe Jenkins, 1995, p. 27″):

We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to His Son if I do not also give birth to Him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of Man is begotten in us.

the prophetic astonishment in the tedious talking


Patrick Kavanagh

We have tested and tasted too much, lover—
Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder.
But here in the Advent-darkened room
Where the dry black bread and the sugarless tea
Of penance will charm back the luxury
Of a child’s soul, we’ll return to Doom
The knowledge we stole but could not use.

And the newness that was in every stale thing
When we looked at it as children: the spirit-shocking
Wonder in a black slanting Ulster hill
Or the prophetic astonishment in the tedious talking
Of an old fool will awake for us and bring
You and me to the yard gate to watch the whins
And the bog-holes, cart-tracks, old stables where Time begins.

O after Christmas we’ll have no need to go searching
For the difference that sets an old phrase burning—
We’ll hear it in the whispered argument of a churning
Or in the streets where the village boys are lurching.
And we’ll hear it among decent men too
Who barrow dung in gardens under trees,
Wherever life pours ordinary plenty.
Won’t we be rich, my love and I, and
God we shall not ask for reason’s payment,
The why of heart-breaking strangeness in dreeping hedges
Nor analyse God’s breath in common statement.
We have thrown into the dust-bin the clay-minted wages
Of pleasure, knowledge and the conscious hour—
And Christ comes with a January flower.

Noun. 1. whin – very spiny and dense evergreen shrub with fragrant golden-yellow flowers; common throughout western Europe. furze, gorse, Irish gorse, Ulex europaeus. genus Ulex, Ulex – genus of Eurasian spiny shrubs: gorse.

Advent Reading of George MacDonald’s Lilith

George MacDonald’s Lilith is almost entirely populated by mothers and children. Therefore, it was natural to think often of Mary and her child while washing dishes and listening to Lilith during this Advent season. (I used an audio recording made by Pete Williams for LibriVox supplemented by occasional references to a free text download from Project Gutenberg.) Lilith: A Romance was George MacDonald’s last fantasy work (1895), and it strongly resembles Phantastes: A Fairie Romance for Men and Women which was his first (1858). Both novellas involve a young man coming of age during the course of a journey through the world of myth and faerie (including encounters with child-like innocents as well as several women who run the gamut from mysterious and majestic to macabre and monstrous).

In Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis describes his first reading of Phantastes at age sixteen: “That night my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized; the rest of me[,] not unnaturally, took longer. I had not the faintest notion what I had let myself in for by buying Phantastes.” All of his life, Lewis was outspoken about his debt to George MacDonald (publishing an anthology of his writings in 1947). In another tribute to MacDonald’s fantasy works, Lewis says in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) that Jadis (the White Witch) was descended from Adam’s first wife Lilith:

But she’s no Daughter of Eve. She comes of your father Adam’s … first wife, her they called Lilith. And she was one of the Jinn. That’s what she comes from on one side. And on the other she comes of the giants. No, no, there isn’t a drop of real Human blood in the Witch. (8.35)

In his story Lilith, George MacDonald is drawing deep on mystical traditions and apocryphal stories from the Jewish exile period as well as medieval Christianity. These stories depict a host of characters around Adam, including his first wife Lilith. In some stories, Lilith is made from clay at the same time as Adam. In other accounts, Adam and Lilith are made as one person and only later separated by God into male and female. In these stories, Lilith refuses to remain united in purpose with Adam, is caste out of the garden, and intermarries with angels and/or demons to spawn a race of monstrous Jinn. In some accounts, Lilith takes on the body of a serpent, and she is sometimes depicted as the one who slips back into the garden to tempt Eve with the forbidden fruit. Another prominent feature of these stories is that Lilith hates human children and carries them off to feed upon them. In this fresco by Filippino Lippi (1502, Fresco, Strozzi Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy), Adam is depicted protecting a young boy from Lilith the child snatcher.


George MacDonald’s story of Lilith follows a young man, Mr. Vane, who has inherited an ancient home with a library that was started long before printing. Mr. Vane spends most of his time in this library and finds it frequented by a spectral librarian, Mr. Raven, who has served the family time out of mind. Following this ghostly librarian one day, Mr. Vane wanders into another realm where he learns that Mr. Raven is Adam and that Adam lives with his wife Eve in a home where they tend to all those who are ready to give up their lives and die the death that brings true life. Invited to lie down in his place among these cold sleepers, Mr. Vane finds that he is unable to do it. Instead, he wanders back out and alone into the world outside the great house of Adam and Eve.

Within this realm, over the course of a prolonged adventure, he encounters a girl and two grown women: Lona, Mara, and Lilith. Lona is the innocent child of Adam and Lilith, abandoned at her birth but kept safe from her cannibal mother. He meets Mara and Lilith separately. Mara is a queenly daughter of Eve who tends to all the suffering souls who are still wandering and unready for death. With a biblical name meaning sorrow or bitterness (and often associated with the name Miriam or Mary), Mara is also called the Lady of Sorrow and the Mother of Sorrow. She is a protectress and her home is a sanctuary at times. However, her primary task is to attend upon sorrow and suffering as agents of salvation.

Lona is a child-mother, tending a tribe of abandoned and innocent babes (called “Little Ones” and “Lovers”). These children bring to mind the slaughtered innocents of Bethlehem and of all human history (infants aborted and left to die). They live together in a Paradise of little fruit trees and are only very vaguely threatened by a neighboring tribe of utterly stupid giants.

Several subplots ensue as the story follows Mr. Vane’s wandering and striving within this world. However, all these plots converge on Lilith’s salvation as she faces bitter defeat and comes to accept the life-restoring death offered by Adam and Eve. George MacDonald’s universalism is openly defended in this story. Generally well within the bounds of historic Christian teaching (on Christology, trinitarianism, etc.), this is one point on which George MacDonald dissents. In Lilith, Adam says that even Satan (reduced to a dimensionless although expansive and sinister shadow who follows Lilith with a desperate and dependent hunger) will one day give up his flight from God’s love and submit to the memory-restoring sleep of death (ultimately given back his purpose as a creature of God). This salvation of Satan is a heterodox speculation for which the great Origin was sanctioned.

George MacDonald is a profound metaphysician, and this heterodox claim for Satan does not negate an otherwise profound understanding of God’s goodness in creation, the bottomless of our suffering and evil, and the faithful depths to which God will go in restoring us to Himself. Lilith is largely about soteriology, and his heterodox claims are not integral to the insights at the core of his story. While MacDonald’s doctrine of salvation strays far from the typical framework of his own Presbyterian tradition, it is faithful to the oldest ideas of the church fathers. The story of Lilith connects salvation to death and suffering. Adam speaks repeatedly about the need to die and about the presence of true life within death itself. Maximus the Confessor crystallizes the teachings of all the church fathers (including, prominently, that of Irenaeus) when he describes the trick that God played by entering into death itself and placing the source of life at the heart of death. Jesus Christ gave death a new purpose as a weapon that destroys sin instead of a weapon that destroys human nature:

[T]he Lord, …naturally willed to die…. Clearly he suffered, and converted the use of death so that in him it would be a condemnation not of our nature but manifestly only of sin itself. …The baptized acquires the use of death to condemn sin. …Christ, the captain of our salvation (Heb 2:10), turned death from a weapon to destroy human nature into a weapon to destroy sin. [Ad Thalassium 61 “On the Legacy of Adam’s Transgression.”]

Upon the verge of following the Little Ones into the very presence of Jesus Christ (described only as “the beautifullest man” and whose only words are recounted by “the smallest and most childish of the voices” as “’Ou’s all mine’s, ‘ickle ones: come along!”), Mr. Vane finds himself suddenly back in this world, alone among his library books. Returning to his own life, Mr. Vane reports that he does not see any of the characters from Adam’s realm again, with one exception: “Mara is much with me. She has taught me many things, and is teaching me more.”

Mara, as the Lady of Sorrow who helps each one in the searching out of their own hearts, certainly has much in common with Mary:

And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. …Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also) so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” [Luke 2]

Mary is the ultimate point of contact between God and His rebellious creation. Her “let it be to me according to your word” opens the way for God to be present with his fallen creatures in their suffering and death, making their suffering and death into something new, into something divine. Just as Mary is the only point of contact between our fallen humanity and God, so Mara is the only point of contact between our mortal history and the world of myth and faerie. And in both cases, the point of contact is our suffering and sorrow, where God meets us and transforms the purpose of our suffering and death. George MacDonald has this message throughout his writings:

The Son of God suffered unto the death, not that men might not suffer, but that their sufferings might be like His. [George MacDonald in “The Consuming Fire” from Unspoken Sermons (First Series), 1867. This passage has also been quoted by Madeleine L’Engle in Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art and by C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain.]

Mary’s most glorious appearance in the Bible is in Revelation chapter 12, which is marked by both celestial glory and intense earthly suffering:

And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. [For an excellent scholarly exposition of this passage, see the transcription of this lecture by Scott Hahn.]

Mary, like us, was and is vulnerable. She suffered and fled to Elizabeth in the face of expulsion from her community. But she is also the heavenly Queen Mother, and we understand her in the characters of Eve, Mara, Lona, and Galadriel. We also understand her in the tyrants of Lilith and Jadis, those self-imposed queens who hate the destiny of Adam and all his children, those mothers-apposed-to-God who hate the thought of their children bearing God’s image and mediating God’s presence.

In the end, Mara patiently but persistently reveals that this life of mediating God’s presence is available only within suffering and death because creation has fled from God and God has met us at the end of our flight from Him. This is why Mr. Vane comes so close to seeing Jesus Christ in this vision (hearing the Little Ones exclaim as they encounter Jesus) but parts the final veil himself only to find himself alone within his library again, with only Mara and bitterness as his teacher.

Nativity is the intrusion of God’s glorious intention and conclusion into the midst of our moment-by-moment travails in this life. George MacDonald’s story allows Mr. Vane to experience this end briefly without reaching it fully. In this attempt to describe God’s purposes for humanity, George MacDonald pushes his language to the limit. Humanity is the living point of contact between God and His creation—the interplay or amplification-chamber of thanksgiving, consciousness, and desire—where creation knows its Creator. This is humanity’s purpose and life as the priest and the divine image within the temple of creation:

Every growing thing showed me, by its shape and colour, its indwelling idea—the informing thought, that is, which was its being, and sent it out. …I lived in everything; everything entered and lived in me. To be aware of a thing, was to know its life at once and mine, to know whence we came, and where we were at home. …When a little breeze brushing a bush of heather set its purple bells a ringing, I was myself in the joy of the bells, myself in the joy of the breeze to which responded their sweet TIN-TINNING, myself in the joy of the sense, and of the soul that received all the joys together. To everything glad I lent the hall of my being wherein to revel.

…Now, the soul of everything I met came out to greet me and make friends with me, telling me we came from the same, and meant the same. …Two joy-fires were Lona and I [a new Adam and Eve]. Earth breathed heavenward her sweet-savoured smoke; we breathed homeward our longing desires. For thanksgiving, our very consciousness was that.

Mr. Vane does not stay here with Lona but returns very shortly after this scene to life alone with the Mother of Sorrow for his only teacher. However, Mary’s Magnificat announces that God is with the down-trodden. “He has put down the mighty from their seat: and has exalted the humble and meek.” At the climax of Mara’s ministry to Lilith, Mara can do nothing herself but sit down to weep as Lilith suffers:

Then came the most fearful thing of all. I did not know what it was; I knew myself unable to imagine it; I knew only that if it came near me I should die of terror! I now know that it was LIFE IN DEATH—life dead, yet existent; and I knew that Lilith had had glimpses, but only glimpses of it before: it had never been with her until now. …Mara buried her head in her hands. I gazed on the face of one who knew existence but not love—knew nor life, nor joy, nor good; with my eyes I saw the face of a live death! She knew life only to know that it was dead, and that, in her, death lived. It was not merely that life had ceased in her, but that she was consciously a dead thing. She had killed her life, and was dead—and knew it. She must DEATH IT for ever and ever! She had tried her hardest to unmake herself, and could not! she was a dead life! she could not cease! she must BE! In her face I saw and read beyond its misery—saw in its dismay that the dismay behind it was more than it could manifest. It sent out a livid gloom; the light that was in her was darkness, and after its kind it shone. She was what God could not have created. She had usurped beyond her share in self-creation, and her part had undone His! She saw now what she had made, and behold, it was not good! She was as a conscious corpse, whose coffin would never come to pieces, never set her free!

Lilith is all of us. We are Adam’s first family. Lilith is Eve without God’s unmerited grace (to use a little Presbyterian lingo). Lilith is Eve without Seth and Mary. Take or leave any part of Lilith and her story, and you are still left with Adam, Eve, and all of their children. When the end finally comes for Lilith, and she yields to Mara, we see a picture of ourselves accepting our poverty and our need apart from God:

Without change of look, without sign of purpose, Lilith walked toward Mara. She felt her coming, and rose to meet her. …Like her mother, in whom lay the motherhood of all the world, Mara put her arms around Lilith, and kissed her on the forehead. The fiery-cold misery went out of her eyes, and their fountains filled. She lifted, and bore her to her own bed in a corner of the room, laid her softly upon it, and closed her eyes with caressing hands.

Lilith lay and wept. The Lady of Sorrow went to the door and opened it.

Morn, with the Spring in her arms, waited outside.

At Christmas, it is the Lady of Sorrow who opens the door for morning and spring to enter our world and our lives. God’s arrival as a baby does not spare the innocent children from tyrannical slaughter, but this baby who is driven into exile with his young mother will establish a Kingdom that belongs to “such as these.” This “beautifullest man” will always welcome the “smallest and most childish” with: “You’re all mine, little ones. Come along!”

the self-giving of more being than you can comprehend

By Lindsey Brigham (in a blog post here):

The disproportion between preparation and presentation dislodges our priorities to sharpen our dulled values. Our cultural context presses us to prioritize the moment of satisfaction and to scorn the time of waiting. We celebrate Christmas without Advent and wish for instant Thanksgiving dinner.

…The depth of our appreciation for any expression of beauty … is always disproportionate to the labor pressed into its making. Which work of art, even one that you have studied deeply and been shaped by profoundly, have you contemplated with the attentiveness or time poured into its creation? How long do the lovely wildflowers take to germinate, sprout, grow, and blossom before you deign to give them a second’s appreciation while zipping down the interstate? The [star] light that you only rarely even notice … how many years or lifetimes does it travel through galaxies to rest for one brief instant upon your eyes?

I do not think this disproportion originates from our fallenness, but our finitude; we simply have not the capacity for awe proportionate to all the wonders amongst which we live and move and have being. Wonder itself, perhaps, is the consciousness of the disproportion.

…Here, perhaps, we get to the heart of the vision and the mystery, as the table is the heart of human life. Every table images an altar set with sacrifice, for it is by sacrificial death that we live. Yet for how many minutes in any day do you contemplate the daily deaths of plant and animal which sustain the life of your body, the deaths-to-self of your neighbors and family that sustain the life of your spirit—the death of the immortal, eternal, infinite Son of God to sustain the life of your soul? Each moment of your living, each object of your experience, represents the self-giving of more being than you can comprehend.

the austere blessedness of waiting

Celebrating Advent means being able to wait. Waiting is an art that our impatient age has forgotten. It wants to break open the ripe fruit when it has hardly finished planting the shoot. But all too often the greedy eyes are only deceived; the fruit that seemed so precious is still green on the inside, and disrespectful hands ungratefully toss aside what has so disappointed them.

Whoever does not know how the austere blessedness of waiting–that is, of hopefully doing without–will never experience the full blessing of fulfillment.

In a prison letter from Dietrich Bonhoeffer to his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer, December 13, 1943. (From page 4 of God is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas from the writings of Bonhoeffer, translated by O.C. Dean Jr. and edited by Jana Riess.)

the serious reality of the Advent message

As long as there are people, Christ will walk the earth as your neighbor, as the one through whom God calls you, speaks to you, makes demands on you. That is the great seriousness and great blessedness of the Advent message. Christ is standing at the door; he lives in the form of a human being among us. Do you want to close the door or open it?

It may strike us as strange to see Christ in such a near face, but he said it, and those who withdraw from the serious reality of the Advent message cannot talk of the coming of Christ in their heart, either.

…Christ is knocking. It’s still not Christmas, but it’s also still not the great last Advent, the last coming of Christ. Through all the Advents of our life that we celebrate runs the longing for the last Advent, when the word will be: “See, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5).

The Advent season is a season of waiting, but our whole life is an Advent season, that is, a season of waiting for the last Advent, for the time when there will be heaven and a new earth.

In a letter from Dietrich Bonhoeffer to his parents, November 29, 1943, written from the Tegel prison camp. (From page 2 of God is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas from the writings of Bonhoeffer, translated by O.C. Dean Jr. and edited by Jana Riess.)