Did you ever wonder what the Christmas tree, candy cane, wreath, etc. have to do with Christmas? Much of the Christian meaning behind the symbols of Christmas has faded from the memory of our society. Each symbol has had a fascinating and interesting beginning.
Christmas decorations were symbols of Christ in our homes and hearts. It is up to all of us to hand these symbols down to our children and children's children before they are lost in our deeply materialistic society.
The word "Christmas" is a word that we hear and see often through the season, yet many are hardly aware of its origin. Christmas is a combination of two Latin words: Christus and missus. These two words mean: Christ is sent. Sent where? Into the world by the loving Father who wishes to give His children the most precious gift of all - His only Son.
THE CHRISTMAS TREE
For centuries the Christmas tree all lit up has brought joy and peace to millions of homes each season. There are several stories about the origin of the Christmas tree.
One story tells of the first Christmas tree shown in a miracle to an English missionary, Winfrid, later called St. Boniface. In the seventh century, while traveling through northern Germany, he came upon a group of people worshiping a sacred oak tree. He stood among the heathens and tried to convince them to stop worshiping the oak tree. He cut it down and as it fell to the earth it split into four parts and a young fir tree grew from the center. He told the people that this was the holy tree of life because it pointed toward heaven. He said, "Let this be called the tree of the Christ Child."
The tradition of the Christmas tree was brought to this country by immigrants from Germany. The tree is an "evergreen" and is one of the few trees that does not loose its leaves in winter. For this reason it is a symbol of everlasting life, the precious gift from Jesus to all believers. There is even a Christmas tree displayed in St. Peter's Square during the Holy Season celebrating the birth of Christ.
The Germans were probably the first to decorate Christmas trees. They used lit candles, nuts, candies wrapped in bright paper, fruits, toys, angels and stars. The Scandinavians trimmed their trees with little flags, then later also used nuts, apples and cookies.
THE CHRISTMAS CANDLE
Candles have long been a part of the tradition of the Church. At Baptism the parents of the child are handed a small white candle and told: "receive the Light of Christ, may you keep the flame of faith burning brightly on this child who is a new creation." The candles we burn brightly at Christmas remind us of our own Baptism and our own adoption as God's children. They equally symbolize Christ who is our Light in the darkness.
At a wedding there is a candle ceremony whereby the mothers of the bride and groom come to the altar with a lit candle and present them to their children who are to be married. They receive the candles and light one candle on the altar showing they are soon to be united as one.
The star is one of the most popular symbols of Christmas. Many people top their tree with a star or place a star that is brightly lit over their homes. It was the star which led the Magi to the humble crib of the new born King. The Magi were the first non-Jewish people to visit Christ and they represented all people outside of the nation of Israel. The star reminds us that we are invited to come to Christ and to offer our gifts and talents to Him. The Christmas Star is God's invitation to offer ourselves to the Father of all people and nations and to adore Him.
School bells call children to classrooms and church bells call millions of people to worship. Bells alert people to important happenings, saying: "listen, take notice!" Bells are also a favorite symbol of Christmas. "Silver Bells," "The Bells of St. Mary," and the little bell on the Christmas tree in the move "It's a Wonderful Life," are all part of our Christmas tradition. The bells of Christmas have a special meaning, for they sing out: "your Savior is at hand, your freedom from sin is here!" What a joyous message, what a beautiful sound!
SANTA CLAUS AND THE CHRISTMAS STOCKING
Santa Claus seems to overshadow the true meaning of Christmas and there is a sad irony in this since he is really Saint Nicholas. During the 4th Century, St. Nicholas, a bishop of Turkey, was the real Santa Claus. According to legend, he would drop a bag of gold coins down the chimney into a stocking which a poor girl had hung by the fireplace to dry. Hence we have acquired the custom of hanging the Christmas stocking.
He was generous to the poor and always gave gifts secretly. In imitation of him anonymous gift-giving at Christmas time began. In his life, Saint Nicholas reflected God's gift of grace to all. Today, this beautiful tradition has been grossly commercialized. All is not lost however, if we take the time to explain the Christian origin of this great historic figure we call Santa Claus.
In ancient Rome and Greece, athletes and heroes were rewarded with wreaths as trophies in sports or military battle. "To the victor goes the crown" meant that the winners received a wreath and were paraded before the people. Christ's victory over evil on the cross is also symbolized by a wreath. As Christians, we are reminded of the crown He wore, how He was paraded through the streets of Jerusalem for all to see and how He struggled with sin and death on the cross.
THE CANDY CANE
On that sacred night when Jesus was born, in a stable near the hillside of Bethlehem, some shepherds were invited by the Angel to go and see the newborn Messiah of Israel. After Mary and Joseph, they were the first people on earth to adore this Infant Savior. Their crooked shepherd staffs have been memorialized in the candy canes which decorate our Christmas trees and fill the stockings of children.
Decorating the Christmas tree with ornaments comes from an old European custom when ornaments were made from cookies and bread. These were hung on the tree in thanks for "our daily bread." They meant a special Christmas treat for the children, too. Through the years these edible decorations began to be made of carved wood and blown glass. The tradition of edible decorations is still carried on when we give and share special Christmas breads and foods with friends and relatives.
We often use apples to stuff children's Christmas stockings and to hang on our Christmas trees as decorations. Yet few of us realize that the apple also has a Christian meaning. It stands for the forbidden fruit that Adam and Eve ate in the garden of Paradise and therefore, the first sin and the sin of all humanity. Although the apple recalls this sad event, it also reminds us of the happy outcome - the good news that Christ is the new Adam who has saved us from sin.
Christmas carols go back to St. Francis. A "carol" signified a dance rather than a song. It was St. Francis who led the people in joyous dancing around the Nativity scene.
Garlands and sprigs of holly are used to adorn our homes, churches and public places. The colorful green leaves and red berries bring an air of festivity, yet they bear a deeper message than simple decoration. Long ago, the sharp thorns and red berries reminded Christians of the suffering for which the Infant Messiah was destined. They saw in the thorns the crown which would pierce His head. The berries reminded them of the blood He would shed.
Red and green are the colors most used at Christmas time. In the tradition of the Church these colors have special meaning. Red symbolizes the blood of Christ and the martyrs who loved God and remained faithful to Him. Green is the color of hope and has always been a sign of life and growth in nature. Love and hope are very much a part of the Christmas story, for God became human to prove His deep love for us and give us hope of eternal life.
THE CHRISTMAS SEAL
The Christmas Seal was started in 1903 by Anton Holmboe, a Danish postal clerk. It was started as a source of revenue for an anti-tuberculosis society.
The exchange of Christmas cards began in England in the 1800's. They were first introduced in the United States by Louis Prang, a German immigrant who settled in Massachusetts. Prang, called the "Father of the American Christmas Card", printed the first "Season's Greetings" in 1873.
My friend Mary Ann of Friends of the Poor Souls shared the following with me a few months ago.