Christmas symbols, such as candles, bells, evergreens and mistletoe, are an integral part of our celebration of the holidays. However, many people do not know the significance of these symbols or how they evolved.
The first known use of bells at Christmas was in the 4th Century AD. It is said that Bishop Paulinus of Nola, in Campania, Italy, first rang the bells to celebrate Christmas. The Latin word for bell, Campanula, comes from these words.
Candles are used in many countries at Christmas to symbolize faith. Burning candles in the windows on Christmas Eve to welcome the Christ Child is an old Irish custom. In Norway, burning candles were said to radiate blessings.
The use of evergreens has its roots in Pagan festivals. The Romans thought bringing in green branches would bring good luck in the New Year. The Church finally came to accept them, since there is a passage in isaiah which mentions the use of the fir tree and pine tree to beautify God's sanctuary.
The custom of decorating a Christmas tree comes from Germany, where legend has it that Martin Luther cut a fir tree and bought it inside his house. Then he decorated it with lighted candles, to represent the stars.
The poinsettia has only been used as a Christmas symbol since 1836, when Joel Poinsett, Minister to Mexico, bought one to his South Carolina home. Mistletoe is used as a decoration, and of course a person standing under it can expect to be kissed. This custom may have grown from an old legend that if a girl does not receive a kiss under the mistletoe, she will not marry in the next year. The holly that decorates our homes was first used in early France and England. A sprig hanging above the door indicated a house in which Christ abided.
The custom of giving gifts comes from the gifts given to the Christ Child by the Three Kings. The gifts that theyave to the Baby Jesus were symbolic in themselves. Gold represented kingship, frankincence the high priest and myrrh the great physician.
Of course, the use of angels, stars and nativity scenes comes directly from the Christmas story recounted in the Bible.
Hanging stockings can be traced to Saint Nicholas, a bishop in Asia Minor in the Fourth Century. In a legend, he tossed gold down the chimney of a house where the three daughters were about to be sold into slavery because their poor father could not afford a dowry for them. The gold fell into their stockings, which were hung by the fire to dry.
Now when you observe these Christmas customs, think about their meanings and how they originated.