Christmas Symbolism: The Symbols of Christmas and Their Meanings
Christmas Symbolism and Meanings: Christmas symbolism draws a lot of different kinds of imagery to different people. As I always say, our understanding of symbolic meanings is very personal – subjective.
So, depending upon your beliefs, upbringing, faith, or viewpoint your idea of Christmas symbolism may be very different from anyone else’s.
I absolutely love this. Why? Because I know the symbolism is a great big batch of soup, in which each of us can flavor it with our own views. Together, all of our subjective meanings make the whole divinely delicious symbolic dish.
When I work out the symbolism in my own heart and mind, I work with the basics. Meaning, I fall back to tried-and-true stepping stones like the sun, the moon, the elements (fire, earth, air, water), directions, etc. – real grass roots stuff.
And so, Christmas symbolism, in my view, is rooted in the presence of Light. Whether it’s the Christ light, or the Sunlight returning back to our focus with the lengthening of days – to be true – this time of year (around the winter solstice) is a time to “See the Light.”
Themes of Promise and Hope
This time of year marks the least amount of light shining upon the northern hemisphere of the earth. Each consecutive day after the winter solstice is a day imbued with promise because the sun lingers just a wee bit longer. And although the grips of winter are still firm and often cruel, the promise of lengthening Light insures hope will be restored (crops will flourish once again, warmth is a promise just around the bend).
So, in the spirit of renewal, and welcoming the Light of Understanding and Inner Illumination, here are a few thoughts on various Christmas symbols we see this time of year. It is my hope these symbolic thoughts will kindle your own personal understanding and encourage you to explore more deeply into the realm of seasonal symbolism.
Common Christmas Symbols and Their Meanings
Angels are commonly showcased in the collective consciousness this time of year because, I believe, they are beings of light. And, as we are welcoming the renewal of Light (in its many forms) this time of year, it makes sense Angels will accompany our illuminated celebrations. Angels are symbolic of messages from the Divine, and what better time of year than Christmas to open up our channels of understanding to allow for Pristine communication. As Light Beings, what if Angels lived in every light particle? That’s a lot of Divine energy available for our contemplation and access. Divine light meets our awareness at every turn – take advantage of this special time of year to communicate with Angels and vice versa. And, if you need more information on symbolism of Angels, click here.
I love the symbolism of bells – particularly during the winter solstice because it chimes out the importance of clarity. Bells ringing on a crisp Christmas night can serve as a meditative trigger that can intone our awareness into higher realms of pure potential. Bells are also ancient symbols of protection and ringing them has long been considered a way to ward off negativity. To our ancestral minds, the very shape of the bell is reminiscent to the dome of heaven.
In Christianity, the ringing of a bell is a sacred announcement to the presence of Christ at mass. The Buddist traditions hail the sounding of a bell as the resonance of pure wisdom – a tonal symbol of perfect harmony & clarity. In Asian thought the bell is also a harmonic symbol – the bell itself is considered female, the clapper or pendulum within the bell is male. The two working as one to create a beautiful tone is symbolic of the union between male and female (yin and yang) to create perfect cooperation and balance.
Candles are a miniaturized version of the behemoth element from which they come: Fire – The Sun. As we are talking about Christmas symbolism, and honoring the return of the light (in terms of the Christ Light, or the Sun’s rays lingering longer upon the body of Earth), it makes sense to use candles as a way to galvanize the passion touching our hearts this time of year. Candles are light-bringers, and so they are vessels for pure positive energy in the form of spiritual illumination. Remember my earlier question about Angels?
There’s no evidence to refute Angels living within every flame we ignite – so honor the light beings with every candle you light this season. Candles can speak to our souls because fire is a foundational element of our spiritual combustion. Consider this, and imagine the warmth of your spiritual presence spreading out to all of humankind – light a candle in the name of your brother, in honor of your sister, for the human family – this kind of soul-warming is present within you as the heat is inherent to the candle flame.
From Native American wisdom to Greco-Roman medicine the Holly has long held itself as a miraculous evergreen. In fact, its status as an evergreen (keeping green even in the stark winter months) is a testimony to its symbolism of renewal, immortality, and rejuvenation. In ancient Rome, Holly was an attribute to the sun gods. Appropriately, holly adorned Roman halls during the celebrations during Saturnalia to represent health, joviality and good faith. Early Christians recognized deeper symbolism in Holly by associating the leaves as the “crown of thorns” and the red berries as the blood of Christ.
By many ancient European cultures, Holly is a protective agent and is carried into the home to ward of negative energy during the winter months. Tradition holds this greenery is to be removed from the home before Twelfth Night. Druidic wisdom regards the Holly as the king of winter (very male in gender)- the ruler of the dark half of the year. I’ve written more about the Celtic wisdom on Holly symbolism here.
Where Holly is the King of the winter months, Ivy is his Queen. Both Holly and Ivy are common companions during the winter solstice because of their evergreen status. They keep their green splendor in the austerity of winter which is symbolic of endurance, promise, hope, and vitality – even in the most challenging environments. That’s a spiritual lesson – the Ivy encourages us to maintain our health and growth even when our circumstances are less than optimal. Ivy is also incredibly resourceful – weaving its way in every nook and cranny to further secure its placement.
That’s another great lesson this time of year: Be flexible, be resourceful. There’s always another way to climb – another opportunity to be had to obtain maximum potential. The Holly and Ivy observed this time of year is symbolic of harmony – just like the bell. The suggestion of duality (male/female, light/dark, active/passive) encourages us to take a look at complementary elements within and around ourselves. Even unorthodox matches can sometimes be a “perfect fit.” Look for partnerships and strive to match up polarities to achieve classic combinations of endless potential. I’ve written more about Ivy symbolism from a Druidic perspective here.
Keeping in theme with renewal and the promise of illumination re-entering our awareness, it’s not surprising to learn mistletoe is a representative of an illumined life. Neither shrub nor tree and suspended in the air – Mistletoe is a powerful symbol of freedom. It is limitless in its capacity for growth, and indeed, it chooses the Chieftain of the forest, the Oak as its home. This intensifies Mistletoe symbolism as the Oak is vastly powerful to the Druidic arboreal realms of wisdom. Mistletoe is considered female (the Oak is male) and so conveys a message of fertility and renewal born from a partnership of solidity and strength – especially during the winter solstice.
Mistletoe was considered to have tremendous healing properties, largely because of its association with the Oak. Why do we kiss beneath the Mistletoe? It’s a sacred plant of peace, so anytime it was spotted in the forests, honor was paid to it. This was done by warriors too. Ancient Europeans and warring Celtic clans dropped their weapons if Mistletoe was spotted in the forests where they fought. Peace was called at that moment. In a way, Mistletoe served as a “white flag” of surrender to warring clans. This peace-loving behavior is carried out today by kissing beneath the Mistletoe. For more information about mistletoe symbolism and the meaning of Christmas, check out my article on Symbolic Mistletoe meaning here.
As far as symbolism goes, there’s plenty. Starting with the ancient Aztecs. They called the plant Cuitlaxochitl, which means “star flower”. The Aztecs have unique flower meanings of their own, and they deemed the poinsettia to symbolize purity. Interestingly, red is also a color of purity in Aztec wisdom. They used the red tops of the poinsettia flower as a dye for skin and clothing – thus marking the bearer as clean, pure and sacred. Did you know a poinsettia can grow up to 15 feet!? Yep – kind of like a poinsettia tree! This brings me to a personal symbolic observation.
Because it’s often looked at as a disposable plant, the poinsettia is painfully underestimated. I myself am guilty of not knowing just how majestic and gigantic this plant can become when given a little care. Symbolically, this reminds us to never overlook the magic in life – even when it seems insignificant. It’s also a reminder to take care of life – you never know what a little love can produce! For more information about this Christmas flower, check out my article on Symbolic Poinsettia meaning here.
Sure, they pull Santa’s sleigh at Christmas, but why? Who elected Reindeer? This legendary scenario makes its public appearance in the 1800s in the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Also known as the “Night Before Christmas” we are enchanted by the eight tiny reindeer Santa calls out by name. This may have come from the early Norse myths. These myths spoke of Thor, the thunderous One was transported by a chariot pulled by a goat who later morphed into reindeer as the legend was retold over time. I’m not sure about that. But I do know reindeer are symbolic of savvy knowing and they are cunning survivalists able to live in brutal environments. Indigenous people would have observed the reindeer pawing beneath packed snow to access nutritive greens. From this observation, our ancestors would have known where to go for medicinal herbs. Reindeer are one of the first beasts of provision. Meaning, the first upon humankind relied for food, supplies, warm clothing, tools.
This puts the Reindeer on high status. It is worthy of honor. And so it is an animal of nobility, worthiness and is symbolic of continuing the tribe (as it provides for its needs). But how can they fly? Reindeer have been known to have a taste for certain hallucinogenic mushrooms. They have also been seen to act pretty loopy after consuming them. Apparently, they were “flying high” in a hallucinogenic kind of way. This may explain the flying reindeer phenomenon. Explore more about reindeer symbolism and its connection with Christmas here: Symbolic Reindeer Meaning
Stars are commonly seen this time of year, and for lots of good reasons. We know of the North star that guided the Magi to the infant Christ as the story goes. But more spectacular is Orion who is positively radiant at this time around the winter solstice. Orion is a great hunter god in Greek mythology who was blinded by Oenopion after Orion raped Merope (Oenopion’s daughter). Later, Orion cast his sightless eyes to the east. He settled on the isle of Lemnos where the healing rays of the sun restored his vision. This is symbolic. It is germane to our ongoing exploration of the theme of renewal, illumination and clarity in vision during this divine season.
Looking eastward to the dawning sun is akin to awaking our soul-vision to the potential dawning within us. And, as the Sun is the greatest star in our solar system – it is also considered a macro of the great matrix…our soul is its counterpart – the miniature replication of the Sun. Pretty intense – and worthy of some contemplation during this most auspicious time of year.
These were (and still are) typically Fir trees, which, like the Holly and Ivy are evergreen – keeping their happy green-ness throughout the winter. Evergreens are symbolic of keeping fresh, optimistic and radiant even in the harshest conditions. They are symbolic of growth, victory, and renewal as well. I’ve written more about the Fir from a Druid perspective here. When I think of Firs and Pine trees I always think of Pinecones. That always reminds me of the pineal gland. It’s located in the brain, between the two hemispheres, and is the subject of much discussion in metaphysical circles. Thought to be the “seat of the soul” or the “third eye” the pineal gland is full of mystical implications. I don’t think it is a coincidence that a gland with extrasensory functions is so similar in appearance as the pine cone. It is a remark on the symbolism of growth, potential and psychic perception.
The Pinecone and the tree from which it comes is thought to be a tree of Knowing. This is because the cones could predict the weather (opening up to the rays of the sun on a bright day and closing just before rainfall comes). These traits all culminated to make the Fir an exalted tree. Bringing its branches (later the whole tree) within the home was said to refresh, enliven, and offer a clear Vision experience (clairsentience) for the months to come. In ancient times, people were extremely anxious to know what the winter months held in-store – or better said – would food stores last? Would this winter be cruel or kind? These trees were also believed to have protective qualities. Their fresh-smelling branches invigorate the spirit – another gift of renewal during grey winter days. I offer a few facts about Christmas Tree Symbolism on my blog here.
Wreaths at Christmas are typically made with Holly and Ivy for reasons cited above. They may also be made of Laurel leaves and I talk about Laurel symbolism here. What I find even more intriguing is the circular shape of the wreath which speaks of cycles (wheels of time, seasons), infinity, immortality, inclusion, community. It also speaks to the unbreakable bonds we share with Nature and our Beliefs (faith). It’s no accident wreaths are designed to be round. Everything is symbolic – particularly when we explore hereditary symbolism passed down from our ancestors. Wreaths are circular to emphasize the idea of continuity of life. Furthermore, wreaths often double as crowns. Therefore, we could say our “crowning glory” is our immortality, endurance, and the bonds of life we share with each other. Discover more about Symbolic Wreath Meaning here.
Yule Log Symbolism:
The log was typically from the Ash tree, which is appropriate, as this tree was thought to have protective qualities – particularly protective of children. Traditionally, a piece of Yule log saved from the prior winter solstice is used to burn the current log. This tradition is symbolic of the continuity of life, and also fall in-line with the symbolism of renewal and life from death (flame from the ashes, sunlight from the darkness). In most ancient European cultures the duration of the log burning indicated the duration of the festivities. So, it made sense the biggest, greenest log would be sought after to insure a raucous good time could be enjoyed for a long time. I have no idea how this great tradition somehow got converted to something we eat – but I’m glad it did – those chocolate Yule log cakes are outstanding!
The Last Word on Christmas Symbolism
I hope you have enjoyed these thoughts on Christmas symbolism and the various traditions passed to us from human ancestry over the years.
More importantly, I hope these symbolic thoughts have prompted you to delve more deeply in the treasure trove of human experience and learn more about the potential meanings that ring clearly within your own heart. As always, thanks for reading!
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Symbolic Meaning of the Wreath
At its prime root, the wreath embodies the noble circle-concepts of protection, unity and balance. These concepts morph depending upon the purpose of the wreath. Click here to more about the symbolic meaning of the wreath.
Symbolic Meaning of Poinsettia
Poinsettias are native to Mexico and Guatemala. It was first introduced to the United States by Joel Poinsett. Joel Poinsett was an American linguist, scientist, horticulturist and also a missionary to Mexico. Get more about poinsettia meaning and history here.