Christmas XMAS Symbols

The meaning of iconic Christmas symbols

Much of them are based on religious ideology, some times back fitted to create a religious connection, but even with the appropriation by religious groups, the history is fascinating.

Colors

There are many colors associated with Christmas such as the red of holly berries, of Santa Claus or Father Christmas outfit; the green of fir trees; the gold of candles and stars; the whiteness of snowy fields.

    • Red is the color that is considered the greatest excitement, and is also the color of the month December. As the religious symbol it stands for fire, blood and charity.

    • Green is the symbol for nature, youth and the hope of eternal life. It is for this reason that Christmas is a feast of hope, with a newborn child as its central symbol.

    • White is the religious symbol which stands for light, purity, joy and glory. White is seen in the robes of Christmas angels, in Santa’s beard and suit trimmings, as well as in Christmas snow and snow flakes.  In Northern Europe and in some of America, snow covers the ground at Christmas. In southern California roses are blooming. In the warmer climate but the snow is artificial, so as to show the link with the Northern Yuletide.

    • Gold stands for sunlight and radiance. It is the color of the Christmas stars, tinsel, candles, electric lights.

Tree xmas treeThe custom of the Christmas tree can be traced back to Germany in 700 AD. According to legend, the British monk St. Boniface used an undecorated fir tree in his missionary efforts to convert tribe of Germans. Replacing the oak tree which was sacred to the Druids, St Boniface preached, “Let this be called the tree of the Christ Child”. From then on, Germans began celebrating Christmas with the planting of a fir sapling.  Another custom it seems that fir trees were used as Christmas decoration in Alsace in the 16th century. This region now belongs to France but during the 16th century it was German. It is said that in 1539 Christmas trees were being sold in Strasbourg, in Alsace. A play based on Adam and Eve, performed in Strasbourg in 1604, featured a fir tree decorated with apples, candles and candy and called the paradise tree in the Garden of Eden. This tree proved to be so popular that some families put similar trees in their homes.  However, it is not until the 19th century that the Christmas tree became popular in Germany. There are accounts of the use of a tree with lights, in the letters and writing of various Germans. It is also featured in paintings and sketches of this period.  Christmas Trees are always evergreen trees, because the evergreen tree is the “tree of life”. It stays green all winter, and gives us the feeling of hope. In ancient cultures before Christ was born used to bring them into their homes. Some evergreens can even produce flowers and fruit during the winter, seemed magical to these people. People in Estonia and Latvia used to dress Christmas trees with artificial roses, and then set them on fire. They hoped to encourage an early Spring.  In 1834, Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert brought the first Christmas tree to Windsor Castle for the Royal family. This tradition then spread through to popular culture in Britain and the rest of the English speaking world.  The Duchess of Orleans is said to have introduced the Christmas tree to France.
Wreath

WreathThe Wreath which is traditionally displayed on the front door of a home during the weeks of Advent and the Christmas season once was a multiple role.  The wreath is intertwined with red ribbons which is done to express the festive spirit, while its evergreen leaves were symbolic of the everlasting life promised to the faithful by the birth of Jesus Christ. The circular shape was a reminder of the crown of thorns placed on His head by the Roman soldiers when they ridiculed Him as the ‘king of the Jews’. Another reason for the wreath being used as part of celebrations related to the god Bacchus, whose worshippers were thought to have worn circular ivy crowns.  Another practical purpose for the wreath was that the evergreen boughs were believed to protect a home from evil spirits, which were thought to be plentiful during this dark time of the year. During the Middle Ages the red berries of holly were believed to keep witches out of the home; this is why holly became the traditional and lucky evergreen for the wreath-making.

Bells

Bells being rung on Christmas morning has been and is done to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.  A legend that has been told is that the bells were rung for an hour before midnight on the first Christmas eve, this was said to have been done to warm the forces of darkness of the imminent birth of the Savior. At the stroke of midnight, the peal of the bells changed pitch into a joyous peal.  The bells sounding was also for another purpose as well. Just as bells are tolled to announce the death of someone they were also rung to tell the ‘death’ of the Devil which was brought upon by the coming of Jesus Christ. The church bell was also known as ‘the Old Lad’s Passing bell’, ‘Old Lad’ which was said to be a euphemism for Satan. The bells pealing has also been assumed to chase away evil spirits, which are said to be repelled by noise of any kind.  There are many types of Christmas bells for the season. They can be heard on Christmas morning, they are used as decoration on Christmas cards as well as on the Christmas tree. Wassailers would use them to announce their presence by ringing them, so did Father Christmas, with jingling bells accompanying his sleigh progress.

Nativity

The crib, representing the manger in which the baby Jesus Christ was laid after his birth in a stable in Bethlehem, has become a favorite Christmas decoration. It has been used for centuries to bring to life the story of Christmas.  Francis of Assisi, who was renowned for his love of animals, instituted the custom of the nativity scene. After receiving permission from the Pope, he erected the first one during the Christmas of 1224 in a cave outside the town of Greccio in Italy. It was not a hand crafted or modren type of crib but a live scene. When people gathered to watch the spectacle. Francis stood in front of the manger and would recite the Gospel relating to the scene; then he would deliver a sermon.  Nowadays, nativity scenes with all the figures such as Joseph, Mary and the three wise men along with an ox and an ass, have become popular throughout the Christian world.

Holly The evergreen holly symbolizes eternal life. This shrub’s most conspicuous features have long been associated with Jesus Christ. The bright red berries represent the drops of blood He shed on the cross; their color also represented the burning love for God present in the hearts of the faithful. The prickly leaves remind us of the crown of thorns the Roman soldiers placed on Jesus Christ’s head.
Mistletoe Kissing

The kissing under the mistletoe was originally a belief that this plant, which stayed green even in winter, could produce and increase sexual power.  In a few parts of the world it was regarded as being so potent that it could increase the productivity of the soil, be used as a fertility drug for cattle, and it was also used as a cure for impotence in humans.  The Druids believed that the mistletoe’s magic potency extended far beyond just conferring fertility. It was thought to cure almost any disease and was therefore known as ‘all healer’. Sprigs fixed above doorways of homes were said to keep away lightning and many kinds of evil. As the plant had no roots it was believed that it grew from heaven.  An old wives tale has it that a girl who had not been kissed under the mistletoe would be barren. Now it is only an excuse to take innocuous liberties.

Poinsettia

poinsettaThe poinsettia is named after Joel R. Poinsett, who served as the USA’s first ambassador to Mexico, from 1825-1829. He saw this indigenous plant with large scarlet leaves encircling small, greenish-yellow blossoms, which was the Mexican Christmas flower. He sent specimens back to the USA, where they flourished.  A Mexican legend tells how the poinsettia became a Christmas flower. A poor peasant girl was anxious to bring a gift in honor of the Virgin Mary to the Christmas Eve service. She had nothing to give so she went with nothing. On the way she met an angel, who told her to pick some weeds. She did this. As by a miracle they were transformed into the bright scarlet ‘flowers’. Ever since poinsettias have been popular decorations for churches and homes during the Christmas festival.

Yule Log

The yule log was a magical source of much-needed fuel for the sun, and subsequently symbolized the sun’s light, warmth and life-giving power. Another story was that the ‘yule’ which supposedly referred to the ale drink at that time.  Christians adopted the yule log and it became customary to place it on the hearth on Christmas Eve. It was kept burning there for at least twelve hours, its glow adding extra warmth to the home and enhancing the atmosphere of the festival. Strict rules must be followed in everything pertaining to the log. It can never be purchased it has to be received as a gift, be part of a tree grown on one’s own property or just be picked up. It had to be kindled with a fragment of the previous year’s log which had been specially preserved for this purpose, and its fire was never to be permitted to go out by itself.

Star

tree top starThe star placed at the very top of the Christmas tree recalls the one seen by the three wise men ‘in the East‘ at the time of Jesus Christ’s birth, the star that ‘went before them till it came and stood over where the young child was‘ Matthew 2:1-12. In many parts of the world today celebration of the Christian holiday has begun with the appearance of the first star on Christmas Eve. To Christians the Christmas star is suppose to express the ideals held out by Jesus, called in the Bible “the bright and morning star.”  Stars in general have a special meaning, as they are sharing the heavens, no matter what barriers keep them apart on earth.

Candles

The lighting of candles at Christmas originated far back in time when it was part of early sun worship: like bonfires, candles were lit in the depths of winter in an attempt to magically strengthen the weakened sun.  The Church tried to stamp this ancient custom out, but, instead it invested the lighting of the candles with a new meaning. Candles were lit so it is said to symbolize the divine light that was believed to illuminate the world. Another tradition is that candles were meant to recall the lights people lit in their windows at the time of Jesus Christ’s birth, so as to let Mary and Joseph know that they would be welcome in their homes.  Another association of the lighting of candles was the period in Irish history when the Catholic religion was banned. A Catholic family would signal when it was safe for a priest to come in their home to celebrate Mass by placing a lighted candle in the window. It is in this way Christmas candles are a silent tribute to those people of all faiths, who, have faced persecution and who have remained loyal to their beliefs.

Tinsel

Glittering tinsel is used to decorate the Christmas tree to symbolize light. Light in all forms was thought to be magic enough to ensure that the forces of darkness would not have any power.  A Christian legend given for the origins of tinsel is that a poor widow was determined to have a memorable Christmas for her family that all she possessed was a tree. She spent many hours decorating it and finally fell asleep. Later in the night spiders wove webs all over the tree’s branches. As a reward for the widow’s unselfishness, the Christ-child changed the spider webs into shining silver threads.  Another legend was that as a child Jesus Christ once decorated a tree. He was assisted by angels whose hair was caught on the branches as they departed, it turned into tinsel.

Baubles

baublesApples in some parts of the world are used to decorate trees, stems from the apple’s associations with the Tree of Life in Paradise. According to popular belief, though the Bible never actually says so, this was an apple tree.  Baubles are said to be replicas of the fruit. But are mostly just colorful ornaments which contribute to the festive spirit in a home. They also reflect light, which gives a multiplying effect of the candles and lights.

Gifts

The exchanging of Christmas presents can be traced back to an ancient Roman custom of gift-giving which was practiced at Saturnalia.  When the custom was Christianized, it was told that it related to the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh that the Magi had carried with them from the East when they travelled to pay homage to the newborn Jesus Christ.

Ivy

Ivy had been a symbol of eternal life in pagan religions. The Christians believe it stands for the new promise of eternal life.  In England Ivy is considered to be feminine while holly is masculine.

Laurel

The first Christians in Ancient Rome decorated their homes at the Saturnalia with laurel. Pagan Romans believed laurel was sacred to the sun god Apollo. When Romans became more Christian, laurel became a symbol of Christmas.

Rosemary Rosemary was used during the Middle Ages by housewives to spread on the floor at Christmas. As people walked on it, a pleasant aroma arose. Tradition has it that the shrub is fragrant because Mary laid the garments of the Christ Child on its branches. The night he was born, legend has it, the trees suddenly bore fruit and flowers blossomed out of season.
Rose

The Christmas Rose was originally grown in England, and is now native to the mountains of Central Europe, it blooms in the winter.  Legends link this flower with the birth of the Christ Child. One legend is that the three wise men along with shepherds were travelling together when they came upon a shepherdess named Madelon who was tending to her sheep. When she saw the gifts for the Christ child she began to weep as they all had gifts for the Christ Child while she had nothing. An angel who saw her crying, brushed the snow away, revealing a lovely white flower tipped with pink – the Christmas Rose.

Paper Hats The wearing of colorful paper hats at Christmas parties and festive meals was done due to superstition. It is said that evil forces constantly threatened the sun’s survival. As evil could only be fought with evil, assuming the guise of the devil was therefore thought to drive away any real devils. Masks and hats were an essential part of devil disguises.
Cards The Christmas card was invented by Sir Henry Cole in 1843.  It is believed that he was inspired to come up with the Christmas card by examples of valentines days cards, which had been popular in England. As well as it was customary for pupils in English schools to produce Christmas pieces. These usually were large sheets of paper which the pupils decorated with colorful borders and headings, and then inscribed with Christmas greetings in their best copperplate.  Cole commissioned artist J.C. Horsley to design the picture for his first card. The picture was based on the common medieval artistic device of a triptych which was a set of three illustrations. The central illustration was a jolly party of adults and children with plenty of food and drink. Underneath the picture was the greeting “Wishing a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you”. Each side panel represented good works such as the clothing of the naked and the feeding of the hungry. His idea did not catch on at the time it was not until about 20 years later that big stationery firms were producing thousands of Christmas cards and Cole’s initial failure had become a tremendous success.
Crackers The crackers date back to the middle of the 19th century and are said to be of French origin.  In their earliest form crackers in France were sweets or bon-bons enclosed in twists of colored paper. An English pastry cook by the name of Tom Smith saw these bon-bons while he was visiting Paris. Once he had returned home, he started to copy the idea of the wrapper, but added other small gifts, as well as slips of paper inscribed with jokes, wise sayings or advice concerning the future. Small toys and paper hats were other surprises that were included. Smith’s idea did not catch on at first, but on Christmas night 1846 while sitting by his fireplace he heard the crackling of the logs and came up with the idea of trying to imitate this sound. He did this by inserting a small explosive in the paper tube, which was set off with a bang by pulling from either side. This saw the birth of the popular named ‘cracker’.

Stockings

A fable of old was that St. Nicholas was concerned about three lovely sisters. They lived on the outskirts of the city and were poor and destitute. The saint was determined to save the sisters from a possible of life of prostitution.  One night it is told that he dropped three pieces of gold through the smoke-hole. The coins did not fall into the hearth, but fell into the girls stockings, which had been hanging up near the fire to dry. They were elated to find the money in the morning. People have hung up Christmas stockings ever since, hoping to receive a similar surprise.

Candy Cane

The white of the cane can represent the purity of Jesus Christ and the red stripes are for the blood he shed when he died on the cross. The peppermint flavor can represent the hyssop plant that was used for purifying in the Bible. However, all of these meanings were added to Candy Canes after they had become popular.

Plum Pudding

Christmas pudding originated as a 14th century porridge called ‘frumenty’ that was made of beef and mutton with raisins, currants, prunes, wines and spices. By 1595, frumenty was slowly changing into a plum pudding, having been thickened with eggs, breadcrumbs, dried fruit and given more flavor with the addition of beer and spirits. It became the customary Christmas dessert around 1650, but in 1664 the Puritans banned it as a bad custom. In 1714, King George I re-established it as part of the Christmas meal, having tasted and enjoyed Plum Pudding. By Victorian times, Christmas Puddings had changed into something similar to the ones that are eaten today.  Also at around this time, puddings in big and rich houses were often cooked in fancy moulds (like jelly ones). These were often in the shapes of towers or castles. Normal people just had puddings in the shape of balls. If the pudding was a bit heavy, they were called cannonballs!  Putting a silver coin in the pudding is another age-old custom that is said to bring luck to the person that finds it. After WW1 it became a threepenny bit and then a sixpence.  The closest coin to that now is a five pence piece. Originally a dried pea or bean was baked in the cake and whoever got it, was ‘king or queen’ for the night.

Gingerbread Houses

Gingerbread is said to have originated from Medieval England, when people used ginger then like the do now — medicinally. As for gingerbread houses, they became popular in Germany many years ago — and some believe that you can thank Hansel and Gretel for their surge in popularity. After the folk story, which originated back in 1812, claimed that the two stumbled across a candy house, people started wondering how they could create their own.  The fact that it’s an interactive family activity also makes it fun for the winter holidays.

According to Epicure & Culture, gingerbread was sacred, and the only time it was allowed to be made by the general public was during Christmas and Easter. So, that’s probably why it’s seen as a Christmas delicacy. It’s all in the timing. And once an association builds, it’s just hard to shake.

Santa Claus

Toby Santa Claus
See this article about the origins of Santa.