Christmas Symbols

Christmas Symbols

Over the centuries many Christmas symbols have emerged from the lore, legends, and customs surrounding Christmas. The more familiar of these symbols include Christmas trees, stars (see Star of Bethlehem), Nativity scenes, Advent calendars, candy canes (see Urban Legends), angels, bells, cherry trees, Christmas cards, farolitos, holly, ivy, gifts, mistletoe, poinsettias, plum pudding, reindeer, robins, and wreaths. Folk figures such as Santa Claus, La Befana, Father Christmas, Grandfather Frost, the Jultomten, the Snow Maiden, the Weihnachtsmann, and the Yule goat also serve as symbols of the holiday.

Lost and Lesser-Known Christmas Symbols

In addition to the well-known Christmas symbols listed above, a number of archaic and lesser-known images have also emerged out of Christmas folklore. An ox and an ass, often pictured standing alongside the infant Jesus, also appear occasionally as symbols of the holiday. Although neither of the Gospel accounts of Christmas mentions these animals, Christmas folklore assigned them a place at Jesus'birth as early as the Middle Ages (see Nativity Legends). Their connection to the Nativity can be traced back to a verse from the Book of Isaiah, which states, "An ox knows its owner and a donkey its master's stall" (Isaiah 1:3). Many Christians took this verse as a reference to the birth of Jesus in a stable (see Gospel According to Luke). Hence, they imagined that an ox and an ass witnessed and recognized the holy birth.

Before the advent of gas and electric lighting, candles and fires of all sorts illuminated the long, dark nights of the Christmas season and gave rise to many Christmas customs (see Advent Candle; Advent Wreath; Christmas Candles; Luminarias; Martinmas; St. Lucy's Day; Up Helly Aa; and Yule Log). The Yule log and the Christmas candle may at one time have served as familiar Christmas symbols, although these customs have since declined. Today we still associate the Christmas season with fires and lights, usually Christmas tree lights, holiday display lights, and the small blazes that warm our home fireplaces (see also Ornaments).

The Christmas ship represents an archaic Christmas symbol which has fallen out of general usage and understanding. Several medieval Christmas carols describe Christmas as a ship bearing spiritual aid to us from afar. One sixteenth-century carol describes the Christmas ship in the following fashion:

There came a ship far sailing then, St. Michael was the steersman St. John sat in the horn; Our Lord harped, our Lady sang, And all the bells of heaven rang On Christmas in the morn [Crippen, 1990, 156].

The words of another song depict Jesus on a ship sailing towards earth to be born into human flesh. Thus "anchored" into our existence, he sacrifices himself for our salvation. Another old song, "I Saw Three Ships," still circulates among carol singers today. This fifteenth-century song also depicts Christ and Mary on board the Christmas ship as it sails into Bethlehem on Christmas morning. Some scholars think that another early version of this carol placed the Three Kings, or Magi, on board the ships that sail towards Bethlehem. Although the inland town of Bethlehem does not have a harbor, this detail did not seem to bother the lyricists of the medieval era.

An old carol of German origin still sung today, "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming," presents the rose as a symbol of the birth of Jesus. The lyrics of the song refer back to the Old Testament prophecy that declares, "there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots" (Isaiah 11:1). Many Christians take this phrase as a reference to the coming of Jesus. The song extends this horticultural imagery by declaring of Jesus' birth, "Lo, how a rose e'er blooming from Jesse's lineage hath sprung." During the Middle Ages the rose also represented the Virgin Mary, an image to which the song also makes reference. Although it is not a familiar holiday image to many Americans, the Germans still use the rose as a Christmas symbol (see also Christmas Rose).

Further Reading

Crippen, Thomas G. Christmas and Christmas Lore. 1923. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Del Re, Gerard, and Patricia Del Re. The Christmas Almanack. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. Studwell, William E. The Christmas Carol Reader. Binghamton, N.Y.: Haworth Press, 1995.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003
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