I found a fascinating discussion of Christmas symbols and their meanings of the Web site of the Confraternity of Penitents, from which the following discussion is excerpted.
Gifts. The wise men who brought their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh inspired the concept of gift giving at Christmas. At Christmas, however, many people focus on giving and receiving gifts instead of on the greatest gift of Jesus that God gave to us at Bethlehem.
Fruit. At Christmas, people often give fruit baskets as gifts. At the turn of the 1900s, good children would receive an orange as a Christmas present. Many Christmas dinners feature fruit such as cranberry sauce. As a Christmas symbol, fruit recalls the twelve fruits of the Holy Spirit that are a result of the gifts of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
Christmas Tree. In the early 700’s, Saint Boniface, who converted the German people to Christianity, cut down the Oak of Thor, the mighty sacred tree worshipped by the Saxons. From its roots grew a fir tree that Boniface took as a sign of the Christian faith. In the 11th century, Paradise plays portrayed the tree of Paradise decorated with red apples. During the 15th century, the faithful began to place trees in their homes on December 24, which was the feast day of Adam and Eve. Around the year 1500, Martin Luther was inspired by the beauty of a snow covered fir tree to bring a small tree inside and decorate it with candles in honor of Christ’s birth.
By the 18th century, the custom of decorating a Christmas tree was well established in France, Germany, and Austria, and in America by the 1800s. The Christmas tree represents the original Tree of Paradise, the burning bush that spoke to Moses, the branch of Jesse from which Jesus was born, the life-giving tree of the cross of Christ, and the tree that John saw in the book of Revelation, whose leaves provide medicine for the people and which yields fruit each month for the healing of the nations. Because it is always green, the evergreen tree represents hope. Its needles and its narrow crest point upward, turning our thoughts to heaven. As the tree is cut down, and then put up again, it symbolizes Christ’s resurrection.
Candles And Christmas Lights. In the Advent wreath, a purple candle symbolizing penance is lighted for the first, second, and fourth Sundays of Advent. A pink candle symbolizing joy is lighted on the third Sunday of Advent. A white candle in the center of the wreath symbolizing Christ’s purity is lighted on Christmas Day. Before electricity, people used candles to light their homes and to decorate their Christmas trees. Candles and Christmas lights represent Christ, the Light of the World.
Bells. Jewish high priests wore bells on the bottom hem of their ephods so that when they ministered in the temple, the tinkling sound could be heard as the priest entered and left God’s presence in order to keep him from dying. Christmas bells not only symbolize the joy of Christmas, but they also remind us that Christ is our great high priest, who offered himself as a sacrifice for our sins once for all.
Candy Canes. The candy cane is shaped like a shepherd’s crook, reminding us that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, came into our world at Christmas. The red stripe symbolizes Christ’s sacrifice and the white background his purity. The candy cane reminds us of Isaiah’s prophecy of the suffering servant who was led like a lamb to the slaughter (Isaiah 53:7) and by his stripes you were healed (Isaiah 53:5). Candy canes have a peppermint flavor, reminiscent of hyssop, which has cleansing medicinal purposes. Jesus came to heal our ills and to purge us of sin. When Jesus was crucified, a bystander stuck a wine-filled sponge on a branch of hyssop to give Jesus a drink. The peppermint flavor reminds us that our healing came at the price of Christ’s life. The candy cane is meant to be broken and shared, just as Jesus’ body was broken on the cross and shared through the gospel.
Gingerbread Men. Gingerbread men are created, reminding us God’s creation of Adam and Eve, and God’s creation of each of us. Spices, reminiscent of those mentioned in the Old Testament, make the gingerbread man the color of the earth from which Adam was created. Gingerbread people are created to be eaten, in effect reuniting with their creators, just as God created us for eternal union with Him after we die.
Please join me tomorrow for Part 3 of Christmas Symbols and Their Meanings!
Excerpted from Confraternity of Penitents.