Many stories have turned up through the years about the origins of the symbols that signify Christmas to those of us who celebrate the season. Several years ago, I wrote a short accompanying piece opposite the greeting for a series of Christmas cards, describing the various beloved and significant icons that appear at that time of year. In my researches, I began to see a similarity in the stories explaining their rise to popularity and eventual prominence in our culture. My presentation of those stories follows below.
A Tale of the Holly
Long treasured at Christmas for its burnished green leaves and bright red berries, the popular holly has not escaped the inevitable connection to pagan peoples. Ancient folk revered these and other evergreens in celebrating the cycle of life. The early Romans brought plants into their homes during the festive January Kalends to be offered as a sacrament, a blessing on the house. This custom traveled to northern lands with the Romans where the favored plant was the beautiful, prolific holly.
Although the Church frowned on what they saw as a lapse into pagan ceremonies, they soon realized the value of such practices if the holly could be accorded Christian significance. Thus the holly became known familiarly as "Christ-thorn" in order to represent the high and holy things of Christ's Passion: the cruel spikes His Crown of Thorns, the red berries His Blood, the white flowers His Purity, the bitter bark His Sorrow. For whatever reasons, sacred or secular, the holly has remained through the years a favorite holiday greenery.
A Tale of the Mistletoe
Under a sprig of mistletoe, according to legend, comes a blessing of peace between enemies and love between friends. The little parasitic plant, found in America on maple, osage orange, and black gum trees, is considered an emblem of affection at Christmastime, but its legend has roots in paganism. The Druids revered it as the "golden herb," which symbolized strength and purity. In mythology, the Norse goddess of love, Freyja, gave to the plant the property of peace-maker. How natural that in the middle ages the mistletoe, called "all heal" or "guidhel," continued to be plucked from its European host tree, the oak, and brought inside during the season that celebrates "good will toward men." Mistletoe even appeared in the churches of medieval times where it was a symbol of pardon for sinners. Only in more recent years has the charming plant been relegated to a more secular use. Each Christmas the white-berried mistletoe is found atop door sills where those who pause may receive a kiss of friendship and peace.
A Tale of Santa Claus
The Santa Claus so beloved of American children came by his unique appearance and name from significant changes through the centuries. Originally known in legend as St. Nicholas, a kindly, fourth-century bishop, he was transformed after the Reformation in Germany to Kris Kringle, from Kristkindlein, the little Christ Child. Sixteenth century Dutch immigrants are credited with introducing the concept of Santa Claus to the New World; it took, however, a celebrated poem of the last century, "A Visit From St. Nicholas" by Clement Moore, to firmly establish the old gentleman as we know him today. "Santa Claus" is merely a corruption of St. Nicholas's name, but the pale-faced, lean ascetic in ecclesiastical robes has given way to a jollier figure with red suit and matching cheeks. Despite the superficial changes, the benevolent spirit of Santa Claus has persisted. He is the imaginative incarnation of generous giving in imitation of the greatest Giver of all: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son."
A Tale of the Christmas Stocking
For generations, children throughout Christendom have hung up stockings on Christmas Eve with only thoughts of Santa's bounty. Few have questioned the practice of using stockings rather than other receptacles such as baskets or bowls. In fact, stockings hung by the chimney may seem to be a happy tradition whose origin is lost in the mists of time. But legend has it otherwise in a story about the forerunner of Santa Claus, the famed St. Nicholas, the fourth-century bishop, whose generosity was unmatched. Among his parishioners was a poor man with three daughters about to be sold into slavery because he had no dowry for them. The good bishop saved the daughters with bags of gold, tossed down the chimney into their stockings left there to dry. The traditional gift of an orange or tangerine in the toe of the Christmas stocking is a reminder of St. Nicholas's golden gift.
A Tale of the Christmas Tree
The Christmas tree is one of the more beloved traditions of the holiday season, despite some attempts to link it to paganism and ban its use. If it is true that primitive peoples worshiped the tree as sacred, it is equally true that our familiar Christmas tree was inspired solely by Christian thought and sentiment. A wonderful legend told by Georg Jacob, an Arabian geographer of the tenth century, soon spread throughout Europe: On the night Christ was born, all the trees in the forests, heedless of the weather, bloomed and bore fruit. So taken were people with this story that it even appears in one of the Coventry Mysteries, The Birth of Christ, and in German folk tales. It was in Germany that the transition was made from natural blooms to artificial decorations. The Christmas tree was noted to be in homes there as early as 1604, and despite periodic puritanical grumbling, it remains today as the crowning glory of Christmastide customs throughout the world.
A Tale of Christmas Lights
The brilliant star that announced the Christ Child's birth hung in the heavens amid a field of stars that first Christmas night. Since that time, lights have illuminated our celebration of that sacred event. The story is told of the German reformer Martin Luther who being overwhelmed by the wonder and beauty of the starlit sky one Christmas Eve wished to transmit his sense of awe to his children. He brought in a small fir tree and adorned it with candles in gratitude to Him who "for us and our salvation came down from heaven." Symbolically, lights represent to Christians not only the starry heavens that night in Bethlehem, but also they represent Jesus Christ as the Light of the World. Almost unimaginable is a Christmas without lights. From simple candlelight to dazzling outdoor displays, the lights of this season spread their shining message of peace and love to all who would see them.