Rediscover the Meaning of Christmas: Symbols behind the Christmas Tree
Andreea Macoveiciuc | On 24, Dec 2013
Decorating the Christmas tree is one of the most enjoyable traditions associated with the winter holidays, and both the setting up and taking down of the tree have their specific dates: 23 December (the first Day of Christmas) or 24 December (Christmas Eve), respectively 5 January (Twelfth Night).
Although the Christmas tree is typically decorated in red and white, the coloring can vary greatly depending on taste and traditions. Each color and each decoration is thought to have a special significance, and lots of people choose their ornaments based on the legends out there.
Getting familiar with these symbols is a great way to rediscover the true meaning of Christmas, and to understand what’s actually celebrated on December 25.
Christmas tree as a symbol
Long time ago, the evergreens were worshiped as symbols of immortality in pagan cultures, and used for warding off the evil spirits. However, starting year 700, the pagan tree was replaced by a fir tree which was considered a symbol of Christianity. Responsible for this change was Saint Boniface, who converted the Germans to Christianity.
During the 11th century, the tree became a symbol of the tree of Paradise, and people started decorating it with red apples. Four centuries later, around the year 1500, Martin Luther brought a tree indoor, and decorated it with candles in honor of Christ’s birth, and starting that moment, people began bringing the trees indoor and decorating them with lights and apples. Still, the custom of decorating a Christmas tree was established in the 18th century, being more common in France, Austria and Germany.
Among Christians, the green tree was thought to symbolize eternal life in Christ, while the red color of apples and of holly were considered symbols of the blood of Jesus. The Holly then started being attached to the tree’s branches, this shrub representing immortality and being a symbol of the crown of thorns worn by Christ on the cross.
Candles continued being used as decorations for the tree, symbolizing Christ as the Light of the World. Although in time the candles were replaced by electric lights, the significance remained the same. However, in Ireland, candles have a slightly different story: during the Penal Times, it was illegal to celebrate Christmas, so catholic priests, expelled from the country, had to travel in secret during night time and celebrate Mass in people’s homes. Those who were willing to host the priests would place candles in the windows and leave the doors unlocked, so that priests could come in, pray with them and spend the night in a secure place.
What about the tinsel? Legend says a poor family wished to embellish their Christmas tree in honor of Jesus, but had no decorations. During the night, a spider spun webs across the tree, and Christ Child turned those threads into silver, to honor the family’s faith.
The star placed on the top of the tree represents the star that guided the Wise Men to Jesus Child in Bethlehem. Lots of people prefer decorating the tree with an angel instead of a star, this being a symbol of the angel who announced Christ’s birth.
These are the meanings of the most common decorations used for the Christmas tree, but the other items we use today have their significance as well, so let’s find out what the bells, baubles and gifts offered at Christmas symbolize.
Christmas decorations and their meaning
For lots of people, Christmas is about giving and receiving gifts, and the initial significance of this gesture is no longer important. Still, if you want to rediscover the true meaning of this holly day and celebrate Christmas for what it actually symbolizes, it’s worth remembering that the gifts are a symbol of the myrrh, frankincense and gold brought by the wise men to Christ Child, in Bethlehem.
The bells attached to the branches of the Christmas tree represent the Joy of this day, but also Jesus as the High Priest. Jewish priests used to wear a blue robe under the ephod, and golden bells were attached to the hem of this robe.
Initially, the apples used for decorating the Christmas tree represented the forbidden fruits, but later the fruits offered for Christmas received the significance of the Fruits of the Holy Spirit. The baubles are a lighter replacement for apples, but their meaning is pretty much the same, and the Nativity Scene or Manger Scene represents the scene of Jesus’ birth.
The candy cane shaped like a shepherd’s crook symbolizes the Good Shepherd, and the poinsettia flowers, through their shape, remind of the star of Bethlehem. The wreath symbolizes true love, which never ceases, while the gingerbread man is a symbol of God’s creation – the gingerbread man does not create himself, it’s created, and its typical color reminds of the color of earth.
Although different traditions and decorations have been created around the world and in lots of houses this season is associated more with Santa and presents, the meaning of Christmas shouldn’t be lost. Besides being a time of great joy, it’s also the day when we celebrate Christ’s birth, so let us all remember this.