Christmas Symbols

What are some popular Christmas symbols and how do they fit into the story of Christmas? For centuries before Christ, residents of Europe dealt with the long, hard winter months by celebrating midwinter festivals. Some familiar Christmas symbols, such as decorating with evergreens, originated in these winter festivals, and were adopted by Christians as they sought to redeem and transform customs and symbols of existing cultures.[1] Other symbols, such as the Nativity scene and the poinsettia, have been Christian from their origins. It would be impossible to describe the history and significance of every Christmas traditions, but here is the story behind several of the more popular Christmas symbols.

Holly, and Ivy, and Mistletoe

 The custom of decorating homes and churches with evergreen plants at Christmas probably grew out of the pagan custom of decorating buildings with greens in the winter to connect with “the spirit of growth and fertility” in the plant world.[2] At first decorative greens were banned by many churches, but they soon made their way into the churches and became a fully accepted part of Christmas. As far back as the fifteenth century in England, it was the custom for homes and churches to be garnished with green plants.

It was not difficult to make a connection between Christmas and evergreen plants. They represent life in the midst of the brown deadness of winter. Holly, ivy and mistletoe, plants that bear fruit in the winter, were especially powerful symbols of the new life represented by Christ’s birth.

Holly’s significance comes in part from its thorns and blood-red berries’ association with Christ’s Passion. This association gave holly its Danish name, Kristdorn (Christ-thorn). Mistletoe has a long history in European pagan myth and ritual. For example, it was called “all-healer” and was believed to be a remedy against poison and to make barren animals fruitful,” and was often associated with fertility.[3] It is difficult to say exactly where the English custom of kissing under the mistletoe came from, but “the practice would appear to be due to an imagined relation between the love of the sexes and the spirit of fertility embodied in the sacred bough.”[4]

Christmas Tree

The Christmas tree is the most prominent of all evergreen Christmas decorations. One of the earliest legends of the Christmas tree’s origin have to do with the missionary work of St. Boniface. During the eighth century he challenged Germany’s pagan gods by cutting down the Oak of Thor at Geismar. After chopping it down, with no retribution from Thor, Boniface was said to have “pointed to a young fir tree as the new symbol to which the German people should look, ever green in the midst of winter darkness.”[5]

More widespread use of the Christmas tree probably had its beginning in the medieval “paradise tree.” The Catholic Church used plays in the medieval era to teach their mostly illiterate congregations about the Bible. One of the plays took place on December 24, the feast day of Adam and Eve, and revolved around the paradise tree, “an evergreen tree decorated with apples.”[6] Later on, additional decorations were added, such as communion wafers, representing forgiveness, and candles. At some point, this tree moved from the stage to homes, as people would put up their own paradise trees on Christmas Eve. One evidence of this connection remains in Bavaria, where the Christmas tree has been called the Paradisebaum.

The Christmas tree originated in Germany, where multiple legends have become attached to its origins and significance. The most famous of these stories is that the beauty of the starry, winter sky and snow-covered evergreens amazed Martin Luther during an evening stroll. So he brought a tree into his house, decorated it with candles, and told his children the candles represented the light of Christ and the starry sky of Bethlehem on the first Christmas night. However, there is “no reliable record of a German tree bearing either decoration or candles” until the 1600s.[7]

By the seventeenth century Christmas trees were popular in the Lutheran regions of Germany. German nobility helped spread the symbol of the Christmas tree to countries like Germany and France through intermarriage with other royal families.[8] German immigrants brought the tree to the United States, and by the nineteenth century, Christmas trees had become widespread in North America, Europe, and Russia.[9]

Early Christmas trees were small and usually fit on a tabletop. During the nineteenth century, families began choosing bigger trees with more space to put piles of presents. Many used to place candles on trees, but often only on Christmas Eve due to the danger inherent in live flames near dry tree limbs. Electric lights were introduced in 1882, and Americans soon stopped putting real candles on trees, though “Europe continues its love affair with real candles.”[10]



The Poinsettia is a shrub, native to Mexico, that’s green leaves turn red (the flower is actually the red inner buds) when deprived of sun light. It blooms in December, making it an ideal symbol for Christmas. After Christianity arrived in Mexico from Spain, a legend arose about a girl going to church on Christmas Eve. She wanted to bring a gift to the baby Jesus, but being poor, all she could bring was a handful of weeds. Jesus miraculously turned her weeds into beautiful red flowers. As a result of this legend, Mexicans called these red plants the flores de Nochebuena, or “Flowers of the Holy Night.”[11] The plant received its American name from the American ambassador to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett, who first brought the plant to the United States in the nineteenth century.


Yule Log

The Yule Log is a large piece of wood that is placed on the fire at Christmas. The custom dates back to twelfth-century Germany. Traditions have varied over time and from country to country, but “the selection and laying of the log are often attended with ceremony and celebration” and many have believed that “its remnants … possess miraculous powers.”[12] In Europe, the whole family, the men of house, or just the father used to go out first thing in the morning to cut one or more trees (sometimes one for each male in the family). The log would burn all during Christmas Day and then the ashes or charcoal from the log were used throughout the year, sometimes to heal ailments, sometimes to fertilize the soil, and sometimes to protect the house against awful storms. Many of these superstitions have faded away, but the Yule Log burning in the fireplace is still an important part of Christmas celebrations for many families across North America and Europe.


Candle and Advent Wreath

The lit candle represents Jesus, the light of the world, and has become “associated inextricably with Christmas.”[13] Candlelight Christmas Eve church services, candles shining from windowsills, and candlelight dinners are all popular parts of Christmas celebrations in many countries. One example of candles on Christmas occurs in Gouda, “the centre of the Dutch candle industry,” where on Christmas Eve the people turn out all electric lights “while the mayor, by candlelight, reads the Nativity story to the crowd.”[14]

The Advent Wreath helps many churches and families recite and tell the story of Christmas. Invented by German Lutheran pastor, Johann Hinrich Wichern in 1833, these wreaths are decorated with greenery and hold four candles. A new candle is lit during each Sunday of Advent, until all four candles are shining on the Sunday before Christmas. People assign the candles varying symbolic meanings. Three are usually in the penitential colors of purple or violet, and the fourth is “the pink of rejoicing.” Some wreaths include a fifth white candle in the middle, called the Christ candle. The candles point to the coming of Jesus Christ, the light of the world, and “the wreath is an ancient symbol of victory, and the greenery represents the everlasting life.”[15]


Nativity Scene (Crèche)

St. Francis of Assissi is often credited with the first live Nativity scene. On Christmas Eve in 1224 he arranged a manger with hay, and live ox and donkey to replicate the Bethlehem scene. Francis led in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper as he talked of the birth of the poor King in Bethlehem.[16] Francis’ re-enactment helped the tradition spread across Europe after 1200, but there are mentions of Christmas cribs and Nativity scenes dating back to the fourth century. In Germany in the fourteenth century, the Nativity scenes became associated with a custom called Kindelwiegen (“Cradle-Rocking”). The crib became a cradle that priests and worshippers would rock while the people sang and danced around the cradle. Up into the nineteenth century Nativity scenes and images of the Christ Child were nearly universal in Roman Catholic churches and homes – especially in Spain and Italy – but less prominent in Protestant countries.[17] However, during the twentieth century Nativity scenes, complete with Mary and Joseph, the baby Jesus, angels, shepherds, wise men, and animals, became common among Protestants in North America, along with Nativity plays in churches and schools.[18]



Central to the legend of Saint Nicholas is the medieval story that he rescued three daughters of a widower from slavery by dropping bags of gold into their stockings, which they had hung to dry by the fire. Today, children throughout the world leave out stockings or shoes filled with hay for Saint Nicholas’ horse, or next to cookies for Santa Claus himself, in hopes he will fill them with gifts. Since Santa Claus most often enters homes through the chimney, children often hang their stockings next to the fireplace. In the early 1800s, “Stockings were the traditional present containers.”[19] However, as more and larger gifts become common, the Christmas tree became the most common place to find presents on Christmas morning. However, many children still find smaller gifts in their stockings, in addition to the larger gifts under the tree.


[1] Bruce David Forbes, Christmas: A Candid History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), x.

[2] Clement A. Miles, Christmas Customs and Traditions: Their History and Significance (New York: Dover Publications, 1976), 272.

[3] Ibid., 273.

[4] Ibid., 274.

[5] Gerald Bowler, The World Encyclopedia of Christmas (Toronto: McLelland and Stewart, 2000), 226.

[6] Forbes, Christmas, 49.

[7] Bowler, The World Encyclopedia of Christmas, 226.

[8] Forbes, Christmas, 51.

[9] Bowler, The World Encyclopedia of Christmas, 227.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Forbes, Christmas, 54.

[12] Bowler, The World Encyclopedia of Christmas, 254.

[13] Ibid., 36.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 3.

[16] Miles, Christmas Customs and Traditions, 104.

[17] Forbes, Christmas, 51; Miles, Christmas Customs and Traditions, 105.

[18] Bowler, The World Encyclopedia of Christmas, 154.

[19] Karal Ann Marling, Merry Christmas! Celebrating America’s Greatest Holiday (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976), 265.


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