Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Symbols and Their Meanings, Part 3

Today we conclude our series on Christmas symbols and their meanings.

Santa Claus. Santa Claus is a corrupted form of Saint Nicholas. He was the fourth Bishop of Myra in modern-day Turkey, and his feast day is December 6. Saint Nicholas was very generous to the poor, but most of the time he kept his identity a secret. The most well-known story is about three young women whose destitute father was going to force them into prostitution so they could survive. To prevent this, Nicholas, secretly went to their home on three separate nights and threw a bag of gold though an open window. Over time, the bishop’s miter and fur trimmed red winter garments became Santa’s outfit, and Saint Nicholas’s generosity was attributed to the “jolly old man” who delivers gifts anonymously on Christmas Eve.

Sugar and Christmas Candy. Sugar isn’t found in Scripture, and for centuries only the wealthy could afford it, while lower classes used honey or molasses as sweeteners. References to honey are found frequently in Scripture. The sweets we consume at Christmas remind us of the sweetness of God’s presence that come into the world on Christmas in the form of Jesus.

Yule Log. The Yule log is a large log that is burned during traditional Christmas celebrations. Yule, which means sun or light, was a festival in honor of the sun god. The 25th of December was the birthday of the Roman god Mithras, who was known as the unconquered sun. Christians can see how the Lord used this symbol to prepare the pagans for Christ, the son of God, the eternal Light, the God of all gods.

The Yule log is reminiscent of Christ’s cross, made of wood. As the burning log gives light as it “dies,” so the death of Christ on the cross brought our world from the darkness of sin into the light of faith. As the burning of the log was thought to bring health, fruitfulness, and prosperity and to ward off evil spirits, so Christ’s sacrificial death brought to those who believe in Him the fruits of the Holy Spirit, health of soul, and prosperity in their spiritual life. Through His death, Christ conquered all evil spirits for all time. Burning the Yule log for twelve days prepared the pagans to recall the twelve tribes of Israel, which preceded Christ, and the twelve apostles whom Our Lord sent to spread the fire of the Holy Spirit to light up all the world.

Wreath. Wreaths combine several Christmas symbols including holly, fruit, mistletoe, evergreens, tinsel, and so on, all of which retain their symbolism on the wreath.

Advent Wreath. The Advent Wreath combines the symbolism of wreathes, evergreens, candles, and holly, when used. In addition, the Advent wreath uses the symbolic colors purple and pink. In an Advent Wreath, three purple candles, signifying penance, prayer, and preparation for Christmas, and one pink candle, symbolizing joy, are spaced equidistantly around the wreath. Each candle represents 1,000 years which, taken together, equal the traditional sense of 4,000 years from Adam to the birth of Christ. The purple candles are lighted on the first, second, and fourth Sundays of Advent, and the pink one on the third Sunday. The white candle in the wreath’s center symbolizes the birth of Christ, the Light of the World and the center of all creation.

Ham. The wild boar, which can normally reach 440 lbs.(200 kg) and occasionally larger (up to 660 lbs. [300 kg]) is the wild ancestor of the domestic pig. Hunting boar was a dangerous sport in medieval times because a boar was powerful, unpredictable, and aggressive. With its massive weight, sharp hooves, short pointed tusks, and quick movements, a boar could easily attack and kill a man. Christians saw in the boar a symbol of Satan who, in the spiritual realm, could unpredictably and aggressively attack and even spiritually kill the soul.

In some artistic renditions of Satan, this enemy of God is portrayed as resembling a boar (sharp hoofed feet, tusks or fangs, hairy, large). Therefore, Christians easily adapted the Scandinavian custom of slaughtering a pig at Yule time to honor the god Freyr who ruled over the sun, rain, and produce of the fields. By carrying into their Christmas feasts a boar’s head on a platter, Christians were proclaiming that Jesus has the ultimate victory over Satan, symbolized by the boar. The Christmas ham is an adaptation of this custom.

Christmas Cookies, Breads, Pastries. Christmas pastries are made with flour and remind us of the many uses of bread in Scripture. The Jewish people offered cakes made with oil to the Lord. The Israelites took their unleavened loaves with them when they fled Egypt. They recalled this event yearly in the feast of Unleavened Bread. The manna in the desert tasted like wafers made with honey. Elijah performed a miracle in which a widow’s flour did not run out during a time of famine. When David brought the Ark of God back to Jerusalem, he gave each person in Israel a loaf of bread, a cut of meat, and a raisin cake. Jesus multiplied loaves twice in Scripture and came as the Bread of Life. He comes to us in every Mass under the form of Eucharistic bread and wine. This rich history is present to us with every taste of Christmas pastries.

Stocking. The tradition of placing gifts into Christmas stockings come from another tradition regarding Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra. In this tradition, the three women who needed dowries in order to be kept from a life of prostitution had hung their stockings by the fireplace to dry. When the saint came by to help them, the money that he threw into their house fortuitously landed in the stockings. The tradition of naughty children receiving a lump of coal in their stockings comes from Italy. Because stockings cover our feet, they symbolize our life’s journey. If our journey takes us closer to God, He rewards us with the joys and happiness of eternal life. But if we constantly turn from Him, we will do so in eternity as well. In popular imagination, satan stokes the fires of hell with coal. Hence, coal in the stocking of naughty children is a somber reminder of damnation while the gifts good children receive foreshadow their eternal reward.

I wish you all the most blessed of Christmases and a joyous New Year!

Excerpted from Confraternity of Penitents.

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