(illustration by Júlia Sardà)
Would you like to go Christmas shopping with Mary Poppins? I know I would, for the obvious reason, the outing would most certainly entail some kind of unexpected magical experience. And who wouldn’t enjoy a little magic? Although, Mary Poppins’s magic is never meant to entertain.
No, despite all appearances, Mary Poppins’s magic has a much more serious purpose. And, it is not the one conveyed by Disney’s movie “Mary Poppins” (and even less so by the sequel “Mary Poppins Returns” ). Mary Poppins does not visit the Banks family to save them or Mr. Banks, as another Disney movie “Saving Mr. Banks” suggests.
Mary Poppins comes to teach the Banks children, and all those who read the original stories, about life and its mysteries. The essence of these stories is mystical and with each subsequent book* (as the spiritual journey of P.L. Travers evolved) they become more and more spiritually infused.
I thought that a blog post about the story Christmas Shopping from the first Mary Poppins book published in 1934 would be an appropriate theme for this time of the year.
(illustration by Júlia Sardà)
It is almost Christmas, and Mary Poppins, Jane and Michael Banks are riding the bus on the way to the Largest Shop in the World. Jane and Michael are excited:
‘I smell snow’, said Jane, as they got out of the Bus.
‘I smell Christmas trees’, said Michael.
And what does Mary Poppins reply?
‘I smell fried fish?’ said Mary Poppins.
Now, this is Mary Poppins! She never gets overly excited and she never gives away any sign that something magical is about to happen. And why would she? There would be no magic without an element of surprise!
Of course, Mary Poppins’s attitude does not stop Jane and Michael from being excited about Christmas and from marveling at the toys displayed in the windows of the Largest Shop in the World. The children take their time because, by now, they know Mary Poppins, and they know that there is nothing she likes more than to look at her own reflection in shop windows.
(original illustration by Mary Shepard)
Jane and Michael are looking for presents for their family. The Toy Department is definitely the designated place for such a purpose; a clockwork train with special signals for Daddy, a small doll’s perambulator for Mommy, a mechanical beetle for Robertson Ay, a pair of spectacles for Ellen who, by the way, doesn’t have any eyesight problems, and Robinson Cruose for the twins to read when they grow up. You get the gist. The children are choosing for themselves. And what does Mary Poppins do? Nothing. She lets them do as they wish, for she does not interfere with their choices, at least not in an obvious way. And anyhow, she it too busy having an argument with Father Christmas over a cake of soap. Now, it is time for tea, and they have to leave the store. Understandably, Jane and Michael are not ready to tear themselves away from the toys.
But Mary Poppins hurried on and they had to go with her. Behind them Father Christmas was waving his hand, and the Fairy Queen on the Christmas Tree and all the other dolls were smiling sadly and saying. “Take me home, somebody!” and the aeroplanes were all beating their wings and saying in bird-like voices “Let me fly! Ah, do let me fly!” Jane and Michael hurried away, closing their ears to those enchanting voices, and feeling that the time in the Toy Department had been unreasonably short.
Just at that very moment, when the children are about to walk out of the shop, a flickering figure of a child pops out of the spinning door at the shop entrance. The adventure begins.
… the child had practically no clothes on, only a light wispy strip of blue stuff that looked as though she had torn it from the sky to wrap round her naked body.
This is Maia, she is the second star of the seven Pleiades; those are the stars that Mr. Banks showed one night to Jane and Michael.
(illustration by Júlia Sardà)
Maia has come down to earth to do a little Christmas shopping and buy toys for her sisters who can’t get away very often because they are “so busy making and storing up the Spring Rains.”
So, Michael and Jane are now following Maia in the store as she choses the gifts she wants to bring back home. Maia selects a little stove with silver saucepans and a stripped broom for her eldest sister because she is domestic, and because, of course, up there where they live there is a lot of star dust.
Then Maia choses a skipping rope for another one of her sisters because she likes to dance and a book for another who is quiet and never wants anything. As for the youngest one of Maia’s sisters, Maia asks advice from Jane and Michael. A humming-top and rubber ducks will do the job.
Now it is time for Maia to go back home. Jane remarks that Maia has no Christmas gift for herself and she starts searching through her parcels to see what she could spare for Maia. It is then that Mary Poppins whips off her new gloves with the fur tops; the first gloves she ever had and the ones she thought she would never grow tired of looking at in the shop windows, and she gives them to Maia, because it is cold outside. Maia kisses Mary Poppins and steps on an invisible ladder carved into the sky and begins to climb up in the air.
(original illustration by Mary Shepard)
Clearly, Mary Poppins teaches Jane and Michael about generosity and the nature of gift giving. A lesson taught without preaching, in the most effective way, by example. She shows them that a gift is an act of love and that one must choose a gift to match the desires and needs of the receiver and not the giver. And, if we push the interpretation further, we can say that there is an element of sacrifice in the ritual of gift giving, at least in P.L. Travers’s mind. The lesson here is similar to another Christmas story written by P. L. Travers The Fox at the Manger.
Another interesting theme in the story is the question of money. After Maia has chosen all her gifts, a practical question is raised by Michael:
“But she has no purse. Who will pay for the toys?”
And Maia answers:
“What did you say?” demanded Maia with round, surprised eyes. “Pay? Nobody will pay. There is nothing to pay – is there?” She turned her shining gaze to the Assistant.
“Nothing at all, madam,” he assured her as he put the parcels into her arms and bowed again.
“I thought no. You see,” she said, turning to Michael “the whole point of Christmas is that things should be given away, isn’t it? Besides what could I pay with? We have no money up there.” And she laughed at the mere suggestion of such a thing.
After all, the spirit of Christmas is about love, generosity and compassion and not so much about shopping. Mary Poppins might have been written in 1934 long before the invention of the internet and smart phones, but she is just as relevant today as she was back then. If we could only remember her!
Maia’s comment about money hints at something we lose out of sight in our everyday life. Money outside of our human social structures has no importance whatsoever. The Universe in which we spin couldn’t care less about money.
We might be living in a material world of our own creation, but we must remember that we are a part of a much vaster macrocosm that obeys different laws. How are we to strike a balance between our material and spiritual needs? And, does one exclude the other? Don’t we need both perspectives even if they appear to be at odds with each other?
And did P.L. Travers succeed in finding that balance? I am not certain, but spirituality was a major part of her life experience, and the spiritual teacher who influenced her outlook on life was G. I. Gurdjieff.
I have written a few posts on this blog about Gurdjieff and I believe that it is relevant here in this Christmas post to talk about Gurdjieff’s inverted Christmas tree and P.L. Travers’s own thoughts about the meaning of this symbol.
There is an ancient tradition originating in Eastern Europe of suspending Christmas trees by their roots and it appears that this tradition was also adopted by G.I. Gurdjieff.
(picture from Gurdjieff and the Women of the Rope)
Rene Zuber a pupil of Gurdjieff experienced Gurdjieff’s inverted Christmas tree firsthand and wrote about it in his book Who Are You Monsieur Gurdjieff?:
(…) I will describe what happened to me on Christmas Eve (the Russian Christmas which is thirteen days later that ours). I had been asked to go to his flat where I found another of his pupils. The master of the house showed us into the empty drawing-room, and there in the middle of the floor lay piles of toys, sweetmeats and oranges. We had to divide them up and put them into little paper bags, so that each child could have his share.
A lovely pine tree, fresh from the flower market, confirmed that everything would be done to custom. I took upon myself to transform it into a Christmas tree with the necessary tinsel, candles and stars. For someone from Alsace, like myself, this was a deeply satisfying task.
I had almost finished when Mr. Gurdjieff came in, glanced at our work, and going up to the tree signalled to me to hang it from the ceiling. I could not believe my eyes. ‘But….Monsieur….from that hook up there? Upside down, with the roots in the air?’ That was exactly what he wanted. So I was left to strip the tree, climb on a stool and attach the roots to the ceiling as best as I could. (…) The story is perplexing. (…)
Maybe Gurdjieff wanted to encourage Zuber to change his perspective on life, to look at things from different angles, to question customs and habits. Zuber writes of Gurdjieff’s teaching as being “invigorating” with “provoking quality” that is “inexhaustible”. These are some of the traits of Gurdjieff’s teaching that must have appealed to his pupils. Or, maybe Gurdjieff was pointing in the direction of P.L. Travers’s interpretation.
P.L. Travers examined the symbol of the tree in a talk she gave for The Far West Institute in the summer of 1973. In that talk she informed her listeners that the tree appears as a major mythological symbol throughout different cultures at different times in the history of humanity, and almost always in the same vein: as a cosmic pillar connecting the underworld, the earth and the Heaven.
She gave examples from the Bible, the Kabbalah, the Norse and Teutonic myths, the Avestan tradition, the ancient writings of the Parsees. And then she introduced her audience to a lesser known mythology, that of the inverted tree:
But it is in the earliest writings of Hinduism that one finds it most vividly portrayed, the mysterious Asvattha Tree of the Rig Veda, with its roots in Heaven and its branches spreading downward. Clearly this tree has a solar aspect, not so much of a physical as of a supernal sun whose rays strike downward bringing life.
And thus, she links the symbol of the inverted tree to G.I. Gurdjieff’s cosmogony:
And all this can be assimilated to Gurdjieff’s system, whose great symbol, the Ray of Creation, is also an inverted tree, rooted above in the Absolute and descending as an octave through ever denser stages of being from one Do to another. Clearly the message of this many faceted symbol is that the roots of man are not on earth but in the Heaven….
In that talk she alos mentiones, although rather briefly, the Tarot card of the Hanged Man. This gives me an idea for another blog post. And on and on it goes… I hope you enjoyed reading this post and that you will come back to read more about Mary Poppins and P.L. Travers.
* There are eight Mary Poppins books.