The symbols of Christmas
- stockings hanging up, poinsettias on our office desks, holly draped everywhere - are so
familiar that many of us barely notice them anymore. But each of those well-known symbols
has a history and tradition all its own. Candy canes, for instance, are thought to
represent the staffs used by the shepherds who journeyed to Bethlehem to see the Baby
Jesus. Here are some of the other stories behind the familiar symbols of Christmas.
Why are red and green the colors of Christmas?
The colors have come down to us from the ancient Britons and Romans, who used holly to
decorate their homes for winter. Because holly is an evergreen which weathers the cold of
winter, ancient peoples believed that the plant would lend its strength to their homes and
families. Holly also has meaning as a Christian symbol; the thorns are
said to represent Christ's crown of thorns, and the red berries symbolize His blood.
Christmas trees have a long history that predates Christmas.
Long before the evergreen tree became a symbol of the Christmas season, it was a symbol of
hope and joy. To the Vikings, it was a reminder that the darkness and cold of winter would
end and spring would return. One legend credits Reformation leader Martin Luther with
beginning the custom of the indoor decorated Christmas tree in sixteenth century Germany,
and most historians agree that the custom of decorating trees did begin in Germany. In
1841, German-born Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, popularized Christmas trees in
England by displaying one at Windsor Castle. The first mention of a Christmas tree in
America was in the mid-1800s, but the custom did not gain widespread popularity until the
Poinsettias are the subject of a beautiful
legend from Mexico, where it was customary in some areas for villagers to leave a gift for
the Baby Jesus at church on Christmas Eve. A poor boy in one village wanted very badly to
give the Holy Child a gift but had no money to buy one. In desperation, he picked some
weeds on his way to church to leave as his gift. He prayed to God to help him show his
love, and God answered by turning the weeds into a beautiful star-shaped flower with
bright red leaves. The poinsettia has been a beloved Christmas symbol ever since.
Druids, or Celtic priests, used mistletoe in religious
ceremonies before Christianity was brought to the Celtic lands. Because the plant has no
roots (it's actually a parasite that attaches itself to a tree and lives off the tree's
root system), it was thought to have magical powers. This belief carried over into
Christian times; one Christian source likened mistletoe to a link between heaven and earth
since it grows without touching the ground. In Norse mythology, mistletoe was associated
with Frigga, the goddess of love, who brought her son Balder back to life; the plant's
berries were believed to represent her tears. As a result, it was considered the plant of
peace, and under it, enemies in ancient Scandinavia met and reconciled their differences.
This gave rise to the custom of kissing beneath the mistletoe, which has survived to the
present. The sprig of mistletoe no longer signals young warriors to throw down their
weapons. Instead it invites young and old to stretch out their arms and embrace in the
spirit of Christmas.
One of the better-known traditions of Christmas is the
burning of the Yule Log. The custom came to England from the Norse, who
burned the juul in honor of the god Thor in pre-Christian times. The Christians of England
adapted this ancient rite for Christmas as a symbol of fellowship, warmth, and light.
According to tradition, each member of a family was to sit upon the log and salute it
before it was lighted to assure good luck in the new year. To this day, the tradition of
the Yule Log continues in many homes in both England, Canada and the United States.