Symbols of Christmas |

Symbols of Christmas

by Jonni Hill

Where do Christmas traditions come from, where did they begin? Some of our Christmas symbols are buried so deep in antiquity it is hard to differentiate myth and legend from fact and certainty as to the reason they have come to symbolize the essence of the holiday season.

Based on information from Websites and, long before the advent of the Christ child, long before His Nativity, this time of year was celebrated as the Winter Solstice by the ancient ones.

It was a celebration to look forward to the end of the cold and darkness of winter and anticipate the renewal of the earth for planting, growing the crops for sustenance and the rejuvenation of spring. It is a holy time, a time of rebirth, a time when people of all faiths and beliefs come together in observances of the season. A common thread entwines these celebrations into the mindfulness of human desires, that of peace, goodwill towards humankind and a time of reawakening.

It is interesting to note that Christmas, for Christians, is a time for celebrating the birth of the Son. For those who follow the ancient ways, they refer to this time as the rebirth of the sun. The similarities in foundation beliefs parallel in so many ways.

It was believed the Nativity took place, indeed, on the 25th of the month; but which month was uncertain and every month at one time or another was assigned to the date of His birth.

During the time of Clement of Alexandria (before 220 A.D.), five dates in three different months of the Egyptian year were said to be the Nativity. One of those corresponded to the Dec. 25 date. During the third century, it was a common belief that Christ was born on the winter solstice based on an interpretation of some prophetic scriptures and an idea that the Annunciation and the Crucifixion both occurred on the same day-March 25.

Another third set of writings, The Apostolic Constitutions, indicates the Apostles ordained that the feast would be kept on the 25th day of the ninth month, which, at that time meant December. The Roman Church finally fixed Dec. 25 as the birthday of Jesus Christ in an attempt to replace the various pagan winter solstice celebrations with a decidedly Christian one and connects the visitation of the Wise Men from the east (the Epiphany) being celebrated 12 days later to the Dec. 25 date.

This date also coincided with the Roman pagan festival of Saturnalia in celebration of the winter solstice. In order to convert pagan beliefs to those of Christian faith, a lot of the symbolic practices were carried over and honored as part of traditional images so familiar to all of us today.

The legacies of Saturnalia, passed down through the ages, defined some of our modern day images and practices for honoring Christmas. Merry-making, rest and relaxation, connecting with family and friends, celebrating new beginnings, feasting and the use of greens as in holly, mistletoe as well as wreaths and garlands made of evergreen “Yule” trees – pines, fir, cedar, spruce and others. Gift giving, an important part of Roman tradition and symbolized by the gifts of the Magi, helping the less fortunate, and a time for peace was also some of the customs of this winter solstice observance to be adopted by the Christians to honor Christ.

The winter solstice marks a crucial part of the natural cycle. In a real sense, the sun begins anew, its journey toward longer days, times of new growth and rejuvenation of the world once again. In a spiritual sense, it is a reminder that in order for a new path to begin, the old one must end and that spring will come again. The birth of Jesus, celebrating his Nativity and believing in His word, offers the same promise.

Mistletoe is one of the descendent traditions from pagan times where it played a very important role in both Celtic Druidism and the Asgardian myths of Scandinavia as a healing plant and one that symbolizes peace, friendship and affection. Displayed as boughs, amulet sprigs above doorways and kissing balls used for rituals of harvest, home blessings and kissing under it for peace making, fun and good luck.

The Church was concerned with the plant’s pagan past and tried to substitute its use with holly. Holly was considered a symbol of Christ. The sharp leaves of the holly represented Christ’s crown of thorns and the red berries were to signify his blood. In spite of this attempt to stamp out mistletoe as a Yuletide token, the practice of kissing under the mistletoe has persisted to this day.

Christmas trees were a tradition originating in European countries. It is believed that the first Christmas trees made their appearance in Germany as early as 700 A.D. It may have grown out of the half-remembered Druidic traditions, or possibly out of the annual bringing in of the Yule log to burn in celebration of the solstice.

The trees were decorated with fruits, nuts, wheat and other embellishments to honor the coming of spring and the need of a good crop for sustenance.

The practice spread across Europe, and by the Victorian Era, people were decorating trees with candles, candy and cakes.

In 1880, Woolworth’s sold the first manufactured Christmas ornaments and by the turn of the 20th century, electric lights had taken the place of the candles. Commercialism was gaining a foothold in the holiday season and the meanings of the old ways were disappearing into the distant past.

Whether you call him Santa Claus, Papai Noel, Svanty Mikalas, Julemanden, Kris Kringle, Pere Noel or Sinterklass, they are all names for the same thing, the spirit of Christmas exemplified by St. Nicholas.

Saint Nicholas was born in the Middle East about 350 miles northwest of Bethlehem in the fourth century. He grew up to be the Bishop of Myra near the coast of what is now Turkey. Legends tell of his love for children, his kindness and the miracles he brought about. Perhaps the most famous story of all tells how he helped three unfortunate young sisters, who could not marry because their father, a poor nobleman, did not have the money for their dowries.

Saint Nicholas, preferring to remain anonymous, tossed a bag of gold into the house at night for the first daughter to have her dowry and marry. He did the same thing when it was time for the second daughter to marry. It was said that Saint Nicholas dropped the third bag of gold down the chimney where it landed in a stocking hung to dry, giving us the reason to hang up Christmas stockings today.

The image of our present day Santa Claus is a direct result of the poem, “T’was the Night Before Christmas” which flowed from the pen and wonderful imagination of Clement Moore. In 1860, Thomas Nast immortalized our present day image of Santa Claus with an illustration for Harper’s Weekly. The first Santa Claus appeared as a small part of a large illustration titled “A Christmas Furlough” in the Dec. 26, 1863 issue and each year, for 23 years, set aside his regular news and political coverage to do another Santa Claus drawing.

Regardless of your beliefs or where they originated from, Christmas and the other winter solstice celebrations are a time for joy, for peace, for helping others less fortunate, for sharing love and kindness with your fellow man. Enjoy the holidays and be mindful of the goodness from which our traditions sprang forth. Carry the feelings these traditions bring to us in your heart through the rest of the year.

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.