Like many of us I’m intrigued by symbols—perhaps because I’m active in a church that honors symbolism, or maybe because of a poet heart or that I like to think about things deeply, especially things that make me feel deeply. Most likely it has something to do with all of the above working in collaboration to teach me, or at least remind me of, what is significant.
Like many seekers I appreciate having a little background or history on a symbol. Check out these five common Christmas symbols and the meaning behind them.
1. Christmas Trees
One of my favorite symbols to read about is the Christmas tree. My lifelong belief that the tree was a pagan practice made me wonder at times why we as Latter-day Saint people participated. I learned that although it is true that the lighted tree was a pagan ritual, there are other stories about the Christmas tree.
Most agree it appeared first in Germany. In fact, there is a beautiful legend about Martin Luther involving a fir tree. My favorite version is that while journeying home one wintery night, Luther walked unexpectedly into a snow-covered meadow where a single fir tree stood, radiant in the moonlight, each snow crystal reflecting like a thousand tiny stars. He was so moved by the image that he chopped the tree down and dragged it miles to display in his home where the stalwart stance of the tree, down to each tiny needle pointing heavenward, became a reminder of hope in Christ through the dark winter.
I felt uncertain about the stocking symbol. As I researched the tradition of stockings placed by the fire the symbolism was a little . . . empty. Then I stumbled on a single sentence in my reading that described our hearts—empty and limp, waiting to be filled with gifts of love from Christ’s birth. I loved that. It instantaneously turned the Christmas stocking into one of my favorite symbols.
3. The Christmas Star
Another favorite symbol of mine is the star atop the tree.
“Like the star that led the way to baby Jesus in the hay—we can shine by treating others as our sisters and our brothers.” —The Symbols of Christmas
Such a simple verse, yet with that understanding in our hearts every time we see a star, a lighted tree, a candle in the window, or the light in another’s eyes, we are reminded that we are asked to love. Through sharing this love, we can co-create a Christ-centered feeling of family, embracing every soul on earth.
Of course we all understand the meaning behind Christmas gifts that comes from the wise men in the Christmas story, yet the tradition clearly has taken on a life of its own and has served as a conundrum for many of us. Sometimes it seems like having the most and the best gifts has taken over our modern celebrations.
But it doesn’t have to be so. For me the deep-seated feelings of resentment toward what gifting has become seemed to fade once I understood the layers of symbolism in this verse:
“Like the gifts the wise men brought in honor of the king they sought, we give a gift and we receive a deeper love for those in need.”—The Symbols of Christmas
The painting for this verse is titled, King of Kings by Howard Lyon, and was created specifically for the book, The Symbols of Christmas. You’ll notice an arguably distinct Latter-day Saint flavor about when the wise men actually arrived to present their gifts. My favorite aspect of the painting is the expression on the face of Jesus as a two-year-old, looking so very young and, simultaneously, so knowing of what gift giving is all about.
Although I won’t touch on every symbol here, I can’t resist just one more. I have to tell you how I fell in love with the symbol of the ribbon. Probably because in my search for its meaning, I wrote pages upon pages of descriptive connections before I uncovered, for me, its true meaning. I can’t point to any evidence that this explanation behind the symbol of the ribbon is historically accurate, only a feeling in my heart.
“Like ribbons wrapped and tied with love, reminding us of home above, she wrapped him up in swaddling white and held him safe throughout the night.” —The Symbols of Christmas
That perception clearly speaks of the tie we have with heaven at Christmastime, like a ribbon of light connecting us to all that is holy and true, tying us as one in His love.
And this too: Mary’s love, as a ribbon of swaddling around the tiny newborn Son of God—like a binding and parental protection, a love only a mother knows.
It is my hope that as spiritual brothers and sisters we will permit a planting, and nurturing, and eventual harvesting of the power of that holy night—layer upon layer—to permeate Christmas this year and for years to come. The true gift of symbols is that every day can be like Christmas day.