Christmas Symbols: origins and meaning
They are everywhere during the festive season! Christmas symbols, such as candy canes, poinsettias, and wreaths, invade the public and private spheres every December. Despite their omnipresence, their origins and meaning remain unknown from Christmas aficionados.
Bells have always occupied a central part in many cultures. Generally speaking, bells are rung to announce important events, both cheery and tragic. In ancient times, bells were thought to chase mischievous spirits. They were also used to get people together in order to pray or celebrate.
Today, in most countries, church and altar bells are played at midnight as Christians believe Jesus Christ was born at this precise time. Bells have also become popular decorative items believed to protect households.
It is unknown how candles and Christmas became associated with each other. Candles were used during ancient Winter Solstice celebrations as reminders of spring’s comeback. Also, papers of wax were offered to Saturn.
During the Middle Ages, a large candle was left shining on Christmas day to represent the light emanating from the star of Bethlehem.
During the Victorian times, candles were used to decorate Christmas trees. They were soon replaced with electric lights to reduce fire hazards.
In modern days, Christians have been putting candles beside their windows hoping the bright light would guide Jesus Christ into their home.
According to the legend, in 1670, a German choirmaster wanted children to remain silent through Christmas nativity services. So, he gave them cane-shaped sweets to keep them quiet. The candy’s form was thought to symbolise the crook carried by the shepherds who visited baby Jesus.
Although delightful, this story is likely to be untrue, as candy canes first appeared in Germany about 250 years ago. The sweets were simple white sugar sticks.
In early 20th century, the sweets, which acquired their cane shape throughout the years, started being adorned with red stripes flavoured with peppermint. Candy canes became extremely popular in the 1950s after the McCormack family commercialised the sweets in the US.
Nowadays, candy canes are now believed to represent the ‘J’ in ‘Jesus.’ And whilst white is associated with the Christ’s purity, red is considered as the blood poured when he died on the cross.
Sprigs of holly have been used as winter decorations since ancient times as they would remind people of spring coming back soon. In a general manner, holly used to be worn by druids who believed it had magical powers due to its leaves remaining green all year long.
Holly sprigs were also hung on Christians’ homes during the Roman pagan festival of Saturnalia. This habit would help them avoid prosecution. Holly rapidly became the symbol of Christmas as the number of Christians rose dramatically.
Holly is now thought to have set the basic colours of Christmas (green and red). Moreover, Holly green leaves remind us of the crown of thorns worn by Jesus when he was crucified. Red berries represent the drops of blood shed by Jesus because of the thorns.
This parasitic plant growing on willow, apple and oak trees were first used by druids for its healing powers. The pagan priests used to cut mistletoe from oak trees and divide them into sprigs. They would use the plant to protect themselves from evil spirits. Also, druids had decided that enemies passing under mistletoe had to go through truce the next day. Due to this belief, mistletoe became a symbol of peace.
The kissing tradition comes from England in the 16th century. Originally, you had to pick a berry before anyone could kiss you. And, if all the berries were gone, there would be no kissing at all.
Mistletoe is now believed to bring good luck in life. Also, mistletoe wood is thought to have been utilised to make Jesus’ crucifixion cross.
Poinsettias come from Central America, and more precisely, Southern Mexico. According to the popular tale, a poor Mexican girl, named Pepita, decided to attend the Christmas Eve service in her Church. Deprived of money, she had no present to leave next to the nativity scene and felt quite ashamed. Her cousin, Pedro, reassured her by telling her that even the smallest present ever would make Jesus happy. Pepita, feeling a bit better, decided to make a small bouquet with weeds she picked from the roadside. Pepita walked to the altar and offered her present to baby Jesus. After kneeling down and putting her bouquet near the nativity scene, the weeds started bursting into luxurious red flowers. Her weeds became wonderful poinsettias. This event was qualified as a true miracle.
From that day on, poinsettias are known as ‘Flowers of the Holy Night.’ Poinsettias are also believed to represent the star of Bethlehem which guided the wise men to baby Jesus.
On Christmas Eve, the wise men noticed a bright and immense star in the dark sky. Possessing deep knowledge in astronomy, the three kings immediately understood something important was happening. So they decided to follow the star, known as the Star of Bethlehem. This astral sign brought them to baby Jesus Christ.
Even if nobody can say what really occurred that night, it is believed the star was the result of a conjunction of planets in the sky.
Now, stars are must-have during Christmas. They signify high hopes and ideals.
In ancient Rome and Greece, wreaths, often made of laurels, were considered as victory signs.
Advent wreaths arose with pre-Christian Germanic peoples who used to gather wreaths to express their hope for the coming spring. These traditional wreaths were evergreens decorated with 4 candles (3 violet and 1 rose) and 1 candle in the middle. Each week, a candle was lit. The fifth candle was lit on Christmas Eve.
Nowadays, wreaths, mainly used as decorations, represent immortality.