A “Christmas Tree” Sampler by Students of Mister Gurdjieff
Christmas tree hanging ‘upside down’
at Gurdjieff’s apartment in Paris
– special thanks to Mrs Mani Gerlach
for the discovery of this picture-
1st Story “The Christmas Tree”
One year, Mister Gurdjieff asked me to decorate the Christmas Tree which he himself always put up, together with one of his pupils, in the group room, in the right hand corner of the window.
Mister Gurdjieff put the roots at the top, as if in the sky, the branches spreading out downwards, towards the earth.
The wall of this room were hung with woven fabrics, little mirrors, braid trimmings, embroidery, and canvasses depicting portraits of various significant people and landscapes. To the left of the door on either side of a dresser, laid out in strips of braid, was – the enneagram.
The tree was to be decorated with multicolored electric fairy lights and shimmering garlands. And presents for everyone, chosen by Mister Gurdjieff himself with each person’s name in his own handwriting on the package. I was always very touched by this personal gesture of attention to each one of us.
I set to work joyfully, but also with the fear of not doing the task correctly. I took what I remembered seeing in previous years as a model. Mister Gurdjieff came to see what I was doing from time to time; a slight but serious “hmm” told me that he was in agreement.
Then I had an idea what I would have been better not putting into practice: to put a star or the Moon at the top of the tree. As the roots of the tree where in the sky, a decoration like shooting stars, the moon, or just one star would not be out of place. I began to make a star out of cotton.
At that moment Mme de Salzmann and some pupils arrived to see the decorations, and, when she saw my plan, she exclaimed, “Whatever is that?” Mister Gurdjieff was watching; first there was silence, then he asked me very calmly, “What, you, do there?”
Mme de Salzmann’s exclamation had frozen me to the spot, my joy sank to earth, with no time to see if Mister Gurdjieff was in agreement with my idea. At this moment, all that I had done no longer had any meaning for me. I wanted the ground to swallow me up.
But later I saw that my star was still there, and it wasn’t questioned any further. After all, Mister Gurdjieff could have made me take it down. And his very gentle tone of voice had attenuated the effect of Mme de Salzmann’s remark; she, it seemed, could only exclaim loudly when confronted with something unusual.
Mister Gurdjieff did not remove his trust in me. I needed it because, through this very thing, he gave me confidence in myself, and that was absolutely necessary to me. All of Mister Gurdjieff’s behavior left you free to think and act; he did not intervene in the process of thought, but helped and provoked it.
A student of Gurdjieff and Orage’s once told us that at a meeting with Orage in New York, someone asked, “How can I look at life differently?”. Mr. Orage replied: “Stand on your head!” – and here as Kathryn Hulme recalls :
The image as he develops it may be St. George, but it is most certainly George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff, who at all stages of his life as a teacher asked much of his pupils and taught them how to make inner-world offerings.
He was an expensive saint who came from a great distance. In his autobiography, Meetings with Remarkable Men (1963), he evoked the remote places in now distant times where he went in search of an utterly persuasive and practical knowledge “of all and everything.” Here and there, in the humble secondary literature, one finds further hints of impressions he received in a now lost religious landscape that shaped his sense of what is right and normal among human beings. The witness is again Kathryn Hulme, the moment New Year’s Eve, 1936:
He was sitting on his divan and nodded as we filed past him and found places around the Christmas tree. He seemed rested.… He asked Canary [in later years, Gurdjieff customarily gave special names to his pupils] to put out all the lights and to plug in the contact that lit the tree. We sat in silence for several minutes. Then Gurdjieff said: “This I like. Such tree makes you quiet, peaceful inside. It is like sitting before an open fire. Coziness.”
The mirror over the mantel reflected the tree’s colored lights. Wendy whispered, “I see two trees …” and started our master talking about reflected light, a chapter out of his unknown past.
“It would be better if it was candlelight,” he said. “Candlelight blends better; electricity does not blend. But the most beautiful light I know, is the light I saw many times in Persia. They make a clay cup, fill it with mutton fat, put twist of cotton in, and this they burn for holiday, fete, wedding. This light burns longer than any other kind of light—even for two days one such small cup will burn. And such light—the most beautiful for blending. For Mohammedan fete, once I saw a whole house lit by such lights … such brightness you cannot imagine, it was like day. You have seen Bengal lights? This I speak about was even more bright. For man, it is the best light for reading …” A note of nostalgia for the Near East came into his voice. “In Persia, they even arrange rooms for such light. Once I saw one I can never forget. They hang mirrors everywhere, even floors and ceilings have mirrors—then around, in special places to make decoration, they put such clay cups with mutton fat, and when you see—it makes the head spin. Wherever you look, you see lights, endless, thousands. You cannot imagine how it was. Only, one must see—and when you see you would never imagine that such a beautiful sight comes from such small idiot thing as this clay cup of mutton fat.…”
“One other thing about such lights,” he went on, “is most original. When they make them with frozen fat, this they put together in layers, each layer with a special perfume, with separations between layers so that when they burn—first you smell, then the room fills with one perfume; after half an hour with another, and then another—all planned exact! Such knowledge they had before … such candles they made consciously and everybody had them. Such was life then! Now … they make them automatically …”
A sadness settled over our spirit after he had spoken, as so often happened when he made a glowing picture of how man once.