Symbols of Advent and Christmas
Bishop Michael Sis of the Catholic Diocese of San Angelo wrote the following column for the West Texas Angelus, the diocesan newspaper. It is reprinted here with permission.
By BISHOP MICHAEL SIS
Christmas is a celebration of the Incarnation of God. It commemorates the fact that the eternal Son of God took human flesh and become one of us for the sake of our salvation. Of course, the actual initial moment of the Incarnation was at the Annunciation, nine months earlier, but Christmas is still a celebration of the same mystery of the Incarnation. We can better prepare our hearts for the Feast of the Nativity of the Lord by becoming familiar with the meaning of the symbols commonly associated with Advent and Christmas. By reflecting on these symbols, and conversing about them with family and friends, the upcoming weeks will be a much richer experience of faith.
LIGHT AND DARKNESS
One of the primary symbols of Christmas is light. In the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice is the point in the year with the longest night and the shortest day. In our current Gregorian calendar, the winter solstice is Dec. 21, but in the previous Julian calendar, the solstice took place on Dec. 25. Thus, the original date of the celebration of Christmas coincided with the day when the light begins to conquer the darkness. This natural phenomenon echoes the theological truth that the light of Christ conquers the darkness of sin and death.
The color red used in Christmas decorations symbolizes the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, who gave his life for our salvation. The color green is symbolic of life and hope. The colors white and gold represent Christ as the light of the world, glory, victory, and the purity of our sinless Savior. These colors are used liturgically on feasts of Our Lord, including Christmas.
The use of a star in Christmas decorations reminds us of the star that led the Wise Men to the newborn Jesus in Bethlehem.
The artistic depiction of angels at Christmas time reminds us that angels appeared to the shepherds announcing the good news of the birth of Christ (Lk 2:8- 14).
Bells in Christmas symbolism remind us of the bells of churches calling the faithful to worship, joyfully announcing the birth of Christ. They are rung at Midnight Mass, either calling people to Mass, or celebrating at the end of Mass. We Catholics were ringing bells for Christmas for many centuries before the song “Jingle Bells” was written in 1857. That song was originally intended as a Thanksgiving song, not Christmas.
The prickly, pointed leaves of holly in Christmas decorations are reminders of the crown of thorns of Jesus Christ in his Passion. The red berries of the holly symbolize Christ’s blood shed for our salvation. White flowers on the holly symbolize the purity of Christ, victory, and Christ as the light of the world.
The four candles of an Advent wreath symbolize the light of Christ, who is the light of the world. The candles are placed in a circle of evergreen leaves. If you follow the line of a circle, it has no beginning or end, so it is a symbol of the eternity of God, who has no beginning or end. Jesus Christ has won for us the possibility of eternal life in union with him in heaven. Evergreen plants are symbolic of eternal life, because they are still green, even in the middle of winter, when other plants have died. Each of the four candles of the Advent wreath represents 1,000 years, to total 4,000 years. Why 4,000 years? If you make a literal count of the years in the Old Testament, from Adam to Christ, it comes to 4,000 years. Thus, the Advent wreath symbolizes all the generations of human beings who awaited the coming of the Messiah to save us from the sin of Adam and Eve. As we light an additional candle with each week of Advent, we see visually that we are coming closer to the celebration of the birth of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, the light of the world. Traditionally, the Advent wreath uses three violet candles and one rose candle. The color violet has two symbolic meanings. On the one hand, it is the color of royalty, proclaiming that Jesus Christ is our king. On the other hand, violet is symbolic of repentance, because Advent includes a call to conversion. The rose-colored candle on the Advent wreath symbolizes joy. It is lit on the Third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, which celebrates the joy of the nearness of the birth of the Savior.
The symbolic meaning of wreaths during the Christmas season echoes what is said above about the circular shape, the use of evergreen plants bells, holly, and the colors of red, green, white, and gold.
Christmas lights express joy at the birth of Christ and celebrate Jesus Christ as the light of the world who dispels the darkness of sin. The Gospel of John says, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:5). Because of our Baptism, the light of Christ is in us, and we are called to let his light shine through us into the lives of those around us. Jesus says in Mt 5:16, “Let your light shine.” All this rich meaning should come to mind when we see Christmas lights.
The practice of giving gifts at Christmas time reminds us of God the Father’s gift of his only Son to the world. Jesus says in John 3:16, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Having received such a precious gift from God, we naturally want to respond by giving gifts to others. Gift-giving also recalls the gifts of the wise men to the baby Jesus – gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
The practice of using stockings at Christmas comes from a story about St. Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra, in what is now the country of Turkey. Nicholas died around 350 AD. He was very generous to the poor. A concrete instance of his generosity was when he helped three young women whose father was very poor. The father didn’t have money for dowries, which in their culture were needed for women to get married. In response to their plight, the Bishop Nicholas, on three different nights, anonymously threw a bag of gold through the window of their house, one for each daughter. The bags of gold landed in stockings or shoes left before the fire to dry. This led to the custom of children hanging stockings or putting out shoes, eagerly awaiting gifts from Saint Nicholas. In some versions of the story, there are three balls of gold rather than bags.
These flowers are native to tropical and subtropical areas of Central America and southern Mexico. The star-shaped leaves remind us of the star of Bethlehem. In Mexico these plants are called Flores de Nochebuena (Christmas Eve Flowers). There is a beautiful story from Mexico associated with their use at Christmas. According to the story, everyone in the village would gather in the church for Mass on Christmas Eve (Nochebuena), and each family would bring a gift to present to the Baby Jesus. There was a little girl who was very poor, and she also wanted to give a gift to the Christ child. She picked a few weeds from along the side of the road to bring to church for the baby Jesus, because she could not afford anything else. The other people in her neighborhood looked down on her, but she believed that even most humble gift, given in love, would be acceptable in God’s eyes. When she arrived at church, the weeds bloomed into a wonderful bunch of red flowers with thick green leaves. Then all the people around knew that they had witnessed a true Christmas miracle.
The symbolism of the evergreen, the lights, and the star on top of the tree are all explained above. The origin of the Christmas tree is rooted in two medieval Catholic practices: 1. A medieval German Christmas tradition called the Weihnachts Pyramide, or Christmas Pyramid, was a layered structure decorated with figures from the Nativity and sometimes with candles. 2. In a separate tradition, the Paradise Tree was part of the scenery on the stage of medieval mystery plays in Germany, which started in the eleventh century as religious theatre. In those days, Dec. 24 was observed as the Feast of Adam and Eve. The tree represented both the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life in the Garden of Eden (Gen 2:9). The fir tree was decorated with red apples to symbolize the forbidden fruit eaten by Adam and Eve. Later, these trees came to be used in people’s homes. The apples evolved into the ornaments of shiny red balls. A star of Bethlehem was later added on top. Eventually, candles were added to the Paradise Tree, from the custom of the Weinachts Pyramide. With time, these two practices (the Paradise Tree and the Christmas Pyramid) were blended into a single custom of Christmas trees in people’s homes, with lights and decorations, including red balls. That is the historic origin of the Christmas tree.
Christmas is primarily about the birth of Jesus Christ, who took a human body so he could offer himself as a sacrifice of love for our salvation. The many beautiful Christian symbols associated with Advent and Christmas help us to honor him with love.