I always enjoy learning of the reasons for why certain images or ideas represent more than just what they seem.
I hope you enjoy reading this as well.
The Symbols of Christmas
Light is the pre-eminent symbol of Christmas. The Light Who is Christ was foreshadowed by the Advent candles, and is now symbolized by the Christ Candle that burns throughout the Twelve Days of Christmas. The Feasts of the Epiphany and Candlemas celebrate Christ as Light of the World in even more explicit ways.
In the Middle Ages, mystery plays were held on Christmas Eve which featured a Paradise Tree -- a tree representing both the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life from the Garden of Eden -- because Christmas Eve was an unofficial "feast day" of Adam and Eve (it's their official Feast Day in many Eastern Churches). The tree was decorated with colorful apples representing the forbidden fruit, and with candies representing the Tree of Life. These Mystery plays were suppressed during the fifteenth century, but the faithful kept the "Paradise Tree" tradition.
At another level of symbolism, Saint Boniface (675-754) chopped down an oak tree sacred to pagans at Geismar in
Germany. He did
this to show them that nothing bad would happen, that Thor has no power. It is
said that when he did this, he pointed out a small fir tree growing at its base
and said "This humble tree's wood is used to build your homes: let Christ
be at the centre of your households. Its leaves remain evergreen in the darkest
days: let Christ be your constant light. Its boughs reach out to embrace and
its top points to heaven: let Christ be your comfort and your guide."
In Roman times wreaths (made of laurel) were used as symbols of victory. Christians adopted the practice, using wreaths (usually of pine nowadays) to represent the victory of the newborn King. Some families turn their Advent wreaths into Christmas wreaths to be used starting on Christmas morning.
Rosemary is a very, very old Christmas symbol. Legend has it that on the Flight to
Egypt after the Magis' visit and St. Joseph's dream, Our
Lady washed Baby Jesus' clothes out and laid them across some rosemary bushes
to dry. Since then, God blessed them with their lovely fragrance.
Ivy was originally banned for Christian use because of its pagan associations, but after they were forgotten in the Middle Ages, ivy became seen as a symbol for human reliance on divine strength because of the way it clings to what it grows on.
The prickly leaves and red berries of holly (Ilex opaca) represent the Crown of Thorns with Christ's Blood, a reminder to us that the Holy Infant was born on this night only to redeem us with His Blood. Earlier symbolism associates holly with the burning thorn bush that Moses saw.
Mistletoe (Phoradendron flavescens or Viscum album) is a poisonous parasite that grows on hardwood trees and was considered "sacred" by the Druids and Vikings. French tradition that holds that the reason mistletoe is poisonous is because it was growing on a tree that was used to make the Cross that Jesus was crucified on. Custom says that two people who find themselves under a mistletoe plant must kiss, so mistletoe is often hung over doorways or suspended from ceilings. In
France, this custom is reserved for
New Years Eve.
Poinsettia plants (Euphorbia pulcherima), called "Nativity Flower," and "Flores de Noche buena" or "Flowers of Holy Night" in
Mexico, is a New World Christmas
tradition. The shape of the leaves symbolize the Star of Bethlehem, their red
color represents the Blood of Christ and the burning love of God. A Mexican
legend has it that a poor girl wanted to give Baby Jesus something for His
birthday but could only present weeds to Him as that is all she had. As she
laid them near the Altar at church, they burst into beautiful red blooms.
To keep poinsettias fresh, don't overwater (before watering, remove decorative wrap and let water drain thoroughly) and keep cool.
The Christmas Rose (Helleborus
is a Christmas tradition that springs from Germany. A legend surrounds it that
is similar to that of the poinsettia: a humble shepherdess felt that anything she
gave to Baby Jesus couldn't compare with what the Magi gave. As she sat
weeping, an angel came and swept the snow away from around her feet, and lovely
cup-shaped white blooms sprang up. The angel said to her, "Nor myrrh, nor
frankincense, nor gold is offering more meet for the Christ Child than these
pure Christmas Roses." This lovely flower can bloom all Winter long.
In A.D. 63, St. Joseph of Arimathea (John 19) and 11 companions were sent to
by St. Philip the Apostle. Legend says that when he arrived at Somersetshire,
he thrust into the ground his staff which was made of hawthorn (Crataegus
Oxyacantha praecox), a plant from the Mediterranean area. The Glastonbury Thorn
sprouted from it -- a plant which has the odd ability, in Somerset, to bloom around Eastertime and at
The original plant was destroyed by Cromwell's Puritans (the soldier who cut it down is said to have been blinded by a large splinter from the tree), but many shoots had been taken from it and its progeny live in
Glastonbury to this day,
heralding Christmas with its blossoms. Since 1929, blossoms have been sent to
grace the Queen's (or King's) table on Christmas Day.
Rose of Jericho (Anastatica hierochuntica and Selaginella lepidophy) survives in a curled up, dormant, brown, dessicated state for years, and then opens up and turns green with a bit of water. After returning to a lovely green, it goes dormant again when its water source is removed. Because of this fascinating property, it is often kept dormant in the home and brought out at Christmas time to blossom and then close in order to symbolize the opening and closing of Mary's womb. Read more about this plant and see larger pictures of it in its dormant and verdant states here.
The legend is that in the late 1800's a candy maker in
Indiana wanted to
express the holy meaning of Christmas through a symbol made of candy. He took
white peppermint sticks and bent them to suggest both the shepherd's staff
carried by the adoring shepherds, and the letter "J" for Jesus. He
let the color white symbolize the purity and sinless nature of Jesus, but added
the color red to represent His Blood. The three small stripes symbolize the
stripes of His scourging, and that there are three of them represents the Holy
Trinity; the bold stripe represents the Blood Jesus shed for mankind.
I don't know if these birds are found in other parts of the world, but in
North America, cardinals have
become a gorgeous symbol of Christmastide. If you live in the right area and
want to attract these sweet black-masked songbirds to your yard, build a
stationary (not a hanging) feeder with a roomy tray about 5 or 6 feet off the
ground and in or very close to some bushes. Fill it up with some sunflower
seeds, (the birds' favorite) peanuts, safflower seeds, corn, raisins, dried
apples, and/or white proso millet. Have a filled bird bath nearby, heated if
possible. They will be most likely to come if you have both evergreen and
deciduous trees in your yard. Cardinals don't migrate, so will live with you
all year. Only the male has the shocking red color; his wife has the same red
beak and shape, but her body is olive-brown.
The red-breasted robin is another lovely symbol of Christmas. The story is told is that Joseph built a fire in the manger to keep Mary and Jesus warm, but the flames kept dying. A robin fanned them with its wings so that the fire wouldn't die, and his proximity to the fire turned his breast red.
It's also said that a robin landed on the shoulder of Jesus as He carried the Cross on Good Friday. When the bird plucked thorns from His brow, the bird’s breast was stained forever with His Blood.
The Christmas carol (as opposed to the formal Christmas hymn) is traceable to St. Francis of
who organized different Nativity Mystery plays. In between acts, carols would
be sung, and audience members would sing them in the streets, too. For the 12
Days of Christmas, carols would be sung as party-goers would move from one
house to the next on their way to different parties. Later, singers would
gather just for the purpose of singing door to door, usually to be rewarded
with hot drinks and sweets. from Fisheaters site