Many of us decorate for the holidays without really thinking about what each Christmas symbol means. When I was growing up, my mom used to participate in an annual wreath competition with her garden club; each member would construct a beautiful holiday door decoration on an agreed-upon theme and win ribbons based on creativity, adherence to the motif, and overall excellence. We loved her creations, but never gave much thought to why Christmas wreaths existed in the first place. The same goes for the ribbons I meticulously curl around my gifts each year, the pretty silver tinsel we hang on our tree, or even the tree itself.
Especially where the holidays are concerned, it’s so easy to fall into a habit and just pull the same decorations out year after year without stopping to consider why we celebrate the way we do. Christmas celebrations are actually rife with tradition and symbolism. We dug deep to find out the background behind the Christmas symbols we all know and love, to inject a little extra meaning into the holiday. So take a minute to slow down and consider the reason for the season. It may help you appreciate it in a whole new way.
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In Northern Europe, the pagans believed the sun was a wheel that rolled away from the Earth during the winter, and decorated their homes with wheels festooned with greenery and lights to coax the sun back toward them during winter solstice. As they began to convert to Christianity, the wreaths took on new symbolism. The evergreens and unbroken circle reminded them of God’s eternal love and the salvation that Jesus brought to the world.
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Candy canes allegedly first came about to keep kids quiet, so if you still use them that way, you’ve got history on your side. In 1670, a choirmaster at the Cathedral of Cologne couldn’t keep the choir members from talking during rehearsal for an upcoming live Nativity Scene presentation, so he wanted to hand out peppermint sticks (a popular treat at the time) to keep them busy. He asked a local candy-maker to bend them into the shape of a shepherd’s hook, to remind the children that Jesus is the “good shepherd” who keeps his flock safe. The crook-shaped candies spread across Europe, and are still in use today.
While many different cultures have used evergreens to decorate during the long, cold winter, 16th-century Germany likely popularized the light-draped Christmas tree as we know it today. As the story goes, Martin Luther went walking in the woods one night and was struck by the beauty of the stars filtering through the evergreens. He cut one down, brought it home, and decorated it with candles to recreate the scene for his family. The idea spread, and now Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without a tree.
Many people top their Christmas trees with a shining star, and others incorporate the design into their decorations in other ways. The star may be one of the most directly biblical Christmas symbols that has made its way into even secular celebrations. It represents the star that appeared in the sky after Jesus was born, which then led the Three Wise Men to visit him in Bethlehem. It also reminds Christians to follow Jesus like their own guiding light.
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With its prickly leaves and red berries, the thorny plant reminds Christians of the crown of thorns that Jesus wore when he was crucified and the blood he shed during that event. That may seem like a macabre reminder during a happy celebration, but the symbol has persisted throughout the ages. In fact, the word for holly in some Scandinavian languages even translates as “Christ-thorn.”
You may think their bright red color against their green leaves is the only reason we associate the poinsettia flower with Christmas, but it actually has its roots in Mexican folklore. As the story goes, two children named Maria and Pablo wanted to bring gifts to their town’s Nativity scene but didn’t have the money. So, they picked up some pretty leaves on the road. The townsfolk teased them about their offering, but as Maria and Pablo placed their gifts around the manger, the magically bloomed into the star-shaped flowers.
People have been hanging their stockings by the chimney with care since at least the 1800s, and no one knows for sure how it started. The most popular story says that an old man was worried about his three daughters’ future, as he didn’t have enough money to give them good wedding dowries. Saint Nicholas apparently heard of their plight and wanted to help but knew the man wouldn’t accept charity. Instead, he slipped down their chimney and deposited gold into each of the girls’ stockings, which were hung by the fireplace to dry.
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Christmas comes at a cold, dark time in much of the world, so decorating with lights that brighten things up makes sense even if you don’t think about what they mean. For Christians, the lights symbolize Jesus’ status as the Light of the World, and the way he came to save people from darkness.
Your kids may ask, “If Christmas is Jesus’ birthday, why do we get presents?” While that pile of gifts by the tree may seem totally secular, remember it finds its origins in one of the traditional Bible stories. The Three Wise Men arrived with gifts for the baby Jesus: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. While we don’t exchange quite the same presents in modern times, the spirit remains the same.
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The custom of kissing under the mistletoe dates back to at least the 1800s, since Washington Irving mentioned it in one of his stories in 1820. It’s represented fertility, romance, and vitality since ancient times, so no wonder we pucker up beneath it. But there’s another element of the aphrodisiac you may want to know. Mistletoe’s seeds can be spread through birds’ feces, so the name comes from the German mist, which means “dung,” and tang, which means “branch.”
Decorating with tinsel comes from an Ukrainian tale in which a poor household found a pinecone rooted outside and brought it in for a Christmas tree. The family was too poor to decorate it, so they went to bed with a bare tree. But overnight, a spider crept in and spun beautiful webs all over it. As the sun rose, it turned the threads silver and gold, making it a merry Christmas for them after all. Today, many Eastern European households hang a spider on their tree to commemorate the legend, and the rest of us hang tinsel and garlands.
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