Thursday, December 22, 2022

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas - Symbols of the Holiday by Jo-Ann Roberts


When it comes to decorating for the holidays, there are certain Christmas symbols that pop up over and over again like stars, bells, mistletoe, and Christmas trees.

While Christmas is an event with religious origins, celebrating the birth of Jesus, there is also a secular side of the holiday with wreaths on the door, a tree decorated with homemade and heirloom ornaments, stockings hanging from the mantle, and the scent of freshly baked gingerbread men wafting from the kitchen. 

Even if we decorate without much thought during the holidays, here are a few symbols and rituals that will surprise you with their origins.


In Northern Europe, pagans believed the sun was a wheel that rolled away from the Earth during the winter. So, in order to coax the sun back toward them during winter solstice, they

decorated their homes with wheels festooned with greenery and candles. The evergreens and unbroken circle reminded them of God's eternal love.

Candy Canes

 Folklore has it that these treats first came about as a means to keep children quiet. In the 17th century a choirmaster in Cologne, Germany couldn't keep the choir members from talking during rehearsal for an upcoming pageant, so he asked a local candy maker to bend white peppermint sticks into the shape of a shepherd's hook, reminding the children that Jesus is the "good shepherd" who keeps his flock safe.  The crook-shaped candies spread across Europe and are still popular today.

Lighted Christmas Trees

While many cultures used evergreens to decorate during the long, cold winter, it was likely the Germans who popularized the fir tree we know today. As the story goes, Martin Luther went walking in the woods one night and was struck by the beauty of the stars filtering through the boughs. He cut one down, brought home, a decorated it with candles to recreate the scene for his family. His idea caught on, and now Christmas just wouldn't be the same without a tree.


These festive plants that we closely associate with the holiday have their roots in Mexican folklore. As the story goes, two children wanted to bring gifts to their town's Nativity scene but didn't have money. Instead, they picked up some pretty leaves on the road. Though the townsfolk teased them, they placed their gifts around the manger. Magically, they bloomed

into the star-shaped flowers we know today. Joel Poinsett, the first American ambassador to Mexico, and a botany enthusiast, first discovered this plant in Mexico. I wondered if he could have imagined how these few cuttings he brought home to the U.S. would turn into a billion-dollar industry!


People have been hanging their stockings with care since the dawn of indoor fireplaces, but no one knows for sure how the custom got started. The most popular story is that an old man was worried about the future of his three daughters as he didn't have enough money for their dowries. St. Nicholas heard about his dilemma and wanted to help. But knowing the man would look upon it as charity, he slipped down the chimney and deposited gold coins into the girls' stockings that they had left to dry.

Christmas Gifts

You may ask, "If Christmas is Jesus' birthday, why do we get presents?" While the pile of gifts may bow to the commercialism of Christmas, remember that the Three Wise Men arrived with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh for the baby Jesus. Although we don't give gifts of this nature, the spirit of giving remains the same.


The custom of kissing under the mistletoe dates back to at least the 1800s when Washington Irving mentioned it in one of his stories in 1820. Because it blossoms even in the cold winter, it's believed that people in the 1st century viewed mistletoe as a symbol of fertility, romance, and vitality, so it's no wonder couples pucker up beneath it.


Although tinsel isn't as popular as it once was, decorating with it comes from a Ukrainian folk tale in which a poor father found a pinecone rooted outside and brought it in for a Christmas tree. Since they had no money to decorate it, they went to bed with a bare tree. But overnight, a spider crept in and spun beautiful webs all over it. As the sun rose, it turned the threads silver and gold, making it a merry holiday for them. Today, many European households hang a spider on their tree to commemorate the legend.
 P.S. My mother had the patience of a saint...she put one strand at a time on the tree!! 

My Christmas release, Noelle-Christmas Quilt Brides, is now available both as an e-book and paperback!


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