Explaining the Meaning of Christmas Symbols

Find Out What's Behind the Star, Wreath, and Tinsel

Christmas ornament decoration
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Have you ever wondered why people hang tinsel on Christmas trees, or how candy canes became synonymous with the winter holiday? While these holiday decorations may seem arbitrary, most of these traditional decorations have a special meaning.

The Star and Candles

The Christmas star symbolizes the star of Bethlehem, which according to the Biblical story, guided the three kings (or wise men) to the baby Jesus. A star is also the heavenly sign of prophecy fulfilled long ago and the shining hope for humanity.

A candle, a mirror of starlight, is also a symbol representing the star of Bethlehem. Before electric Christmas tree lights were invented, families would use candles to light up the tree.

Also, at this time, two other holidays share the significance of candles and light. Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, is celebrated in Judaism, and Kwanzaa is a unity celebration of people displaced during the African diaspora, where one candle of the kinara candle holder is lit over seven nights.

Gifts and a Bow

The men who brought their gifts to honor the birth of Jesus inspired the concept of giving gifts during the holiday. According to the New Testament, Melchior, Balthazar, and Gaspar brought gifts of gold, incense, and myrrh to the newborn.

A ribbon is tied around a gift to represent how we should all be tied together in bonds of unity and goodwill during the holiday season.

The Colors Red and Green

The color red is used at Christmas to represent the blood of Jesus when he died on the cross. It's reflected in the color of holly berries, which also had pagan symbolism during the winter solstice celebrations in ancient Rome.

Green is another popular color at Christmastime signifying everlasting light and life. Romans decorated their houses with evergreen branches during the New Year, and the fir tree symbolized life during the winter. There is also a legend that when Jesus was born in the dead of winter all the trees around the world shook off the snow to reveal new shoots of green.

The Bell

Bells are rung during Christmas to proclaim the arrival of the season and to announce the birth of Christ. Also, the ringing of bells can be traced back to pagan winter celebrations used to drive out evil spirits.

The Candy Cane

This treat represents the shape of a shepherd's crook. Jesus, often referred to as the Good Shepherd, was born on Christmas. His birth was God's way to bring lost lambs back to the fold. The red stripe represents blood, Christ's sacrifice, and the white stands for his purity.

The Wreath

The wreath is a circular, never-ending symbol of eternal love and rebirth. Holly also stands for immortality and cedar for strength. Today the wreath symbolizes generosity, giving, and the gathering of family.

Mistletoe

Mistletoe is a parasitic plant; it lives on the tree that it is attached to, and without it, the mistletoe would die. The plant has long been a symbol of love, and some believe that the Druids used mistletoe as a cure-all or some stories claim that it could promote fertility.

Tinsel and the Christmas Spider

If you've ever noticed a spider decoration on someone's tree, you might have thought they had odd taste. This tradition is due to the eastern European tale of the Christmas spider, which led to the reason for tinsel at Christmas.

A modern version of the story is that a woman immaculately cleaned her house for Christmas. The house spiders were swept to the farthest reaches. They had heard of the beautiful Christmas tree and wanted a look. They saw it, loved it so much, dancing all over it. The spiders left their webs behind. Depending on the version, then, baby Jesus, Father Christmas, or Santa Claus saw the beautiful webs and miraculously transformed them into silver and gold tinsel so the woman would not be dismayed.

In honor of that tale, people hang tinsel on their Christmas trees. It has also become a custom to include a spider among the decorations.