Much of Christmas Holds Religious Symbolism
Fr. Richard Kunst, Curator
It’s the most wonderful time of the year when everyone seems a bit happier. With more spring in our steps and more joy in our hearts we approach the birthday of our Lord. The double-edge sword in all of this is the secularization of the holy day has made it too commercial. As Christians, it is always our challenge to remember the true reason for the season. So often the commercialism of Christmas gets in the way of the Christ-centered message. Yet in saying that, it is important for us to recognize that many of the symbols used at Christmas are actually Christian symbols. Here are just a few examples.
For starters, the traditional colors for Christmas are red, green and gold, colors that emerged long ago to represent different aspects of Christ’s life. Red was for the blood Christ was born to shed for us. Green symbolized everlasting life which we can see in its connection to the Christmas tree. Gold represented both the royalty of Christ the King and one of the gifts the Christ child received from the Magi.
The Christmas tree is a much older tradition and is shrouded in mystery. Suffice it to say the pine tree is meant to symbolize eternal life. It was likely introduced to represent the tree of knowledge of good and evil from the story of Adam and Eve. The first Adam sinned through a tree, while the new Adam, Christ, saves us by the wood of a tree.
Even the original decorations for Christmas trees, apples, were connected to the Genesis story. Apples represented the fruit eaten by Adam and Eve, although Genesis is not specific about the type of fruit they ate.
Although it was dangerous, in times past candles were also used as tree decorations, and they, like the electric lights now used, represented Christ as the light of the world.
Another traditional Christmas item with origins in Christian symbolism is the candy cane. The cane shape not only reflects the shepherds who went to visit the Christ Child but also the fact that Christ himself is the Good Shepherd. White represents Christ born without sin; red, once again, is the symbol of the blood Christ shed for our salvation.
Poinsettias have become the plant of choice for many churches and homes, in part because of the shape of the leaf. Look closely at your poinsettia and you’ll see that it is in the shape of a star. The plant, of course, represents the star of Bethlehem, and the red, one again, the blood Christ shed.
According to ancient tradition, Saint Nicholas left gold coins in the stockings of three young girls who were about to be sold into prostitution because of their family’s poverty. The story is that the girls’ father did not want to accept charity, so the saint sneaked into their house and secretly laced the gold in their stockings hung over a fire to dry. And from this story comes the tradition of the Christmas stocking.
Holly is also a common Christmas decoration, having its origin in religious symbolism rooted in the Passion and death of Christ. Holly has red berries and small thorns. Clearly, it is meant to represent the crown of thorns Christ was forced to wear at his crucifixion.
It is interesting to note how much the death of Christ figures in the traditional decorations for the birth of Christ. Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said, “Jesus of Nazareth was the only person ever born to die.” We were born to live, but Jesus was born to die to save us from sin and death.
So, in the end, many of the Christmas decorations that might seem to draw us away from the message of Christ in fact were initiated to draw us into the story of our Savior’s birth and death.
I wish you all a very blessed Advent and a holy Christmas.