Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas Symbols and Their Meanings, Part 1

Over the centuries the wreath and other plants often used during the Christmas season have held a variety of meanings for Christians.

Evergreens. Evergreens are plants that retain their green leaves or needles all year round. Many pagan cultures worshipped evergreens as symbols of immortality, and used them to ward off evil spirits. Europeans favored the evergreens familiar from German and Celtic solstice festivities. In the cold north evergreens represented light and life at a time of darkness and despair. The torch and plants that stayed green all year were favorite winter symbols. A wreath with burning candles is related to the Yule log burned during the twelve-day Norse winter festival of Jol to bring good luck. For the Swedish festival of St. Lucia, on December 13, each family’s oldest daughter wears a headpiece decorated with greenery and nine lighted candles. Christmas candles may also be related to Hanukkah candles since both festivals celebrate holy light.

Laurel. Early Roman Christians used laurel in their Christmas decorations because it symbolized victory, glory, and cleansing from guilt.

Holly. European Christians in the Middle Ages believed the prickly leaves and red berries of holly represented thorns and drops of blood. Some Christians also believed that the cross was made of holly wood.

Mistletoe. An old Scandanavian custom that enemies who met under mistletoe in the forest were to lay down their weapons and maintain a truce until the following day eventually led to the custom of kissing under the mistletoe. Mistletoe is usually excluded from church greenery partially for that reason, but also because Druids worshiped the plant, believing it could cure diseases.

Christmas Wreath. The wreath is probably related to circlets worn on the head in cultures such as ancient Persia and Greece. The word wreath comes from an old English word, meaning to writhe or twist. Greens twisted into a circle made “crowns” for kings, military leaders, and athletes. Because wreaths, due to their circular shape, symbolize eternity, the circle of life, and endless hope, people began to decorate their homes with them at Christmas. Because a wreath has neither beginning nor end, but is a continuous circle, it symbolizes God.

Poinsettia. The poinsettia may be the only Christmas plant that doesn’t have pagan superstitions attached to it. In 1829 Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett, American ambassador to Mexico, introduced poinsettias to this country. Mexicans call it the “flower of Holy Night” because its colorful bracts form a star shape. Mexican legend tells of a poor boy who was afraid to enter the church on a long-ago Christmas Eve because he had no gift to bring baby Jesus. After praying, he looked up to see a poinsettia blooming at his feet and joyfully offered the flower to the Christ Child.

Please join me tomorrow for Part 2 of Christmas Symbols and their Meanings!

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