As I researched Christmas customs recently, I discovered the meaning behind some of them that many people, even Christians, are probably not aware of. I found the symbolism interesting. Maybe you will too.
Christmas The name for this feast comes from “Christ Mass” because Mass was celebrated in honor of the birth of Christ. The short form of Christmas, Xmas, comes from the Greek word for Christ, which is also the origin of the chi-rho symbol used for Christ in Christian art.
December 25 This date was chosen for the celebration of Jesus’ birth because it was the day the Romans celebrated the feast of the invincible Sun and the Persians celebrated the birth of their god Mithras.
Christmas tree The evergreen tree stands for eternal life, for evergreens stay green all year. This tree is triangular, reminding us of the Trinity, and it points heavenward. Originally Christmas trees were decorated with apples for the apple that Adam and Eve shared from the tree in Paradise. A Christmas tree can also be viewed as a symbol of the death and resurrection of Jesus: The tree is cut down, but then arises in splendor.
Poinsettia The flower of a poinsettia (which is actually colored leaves) looks like a star. In fact, this flower is also called Christmas Star. A poinsettia represents the Star of Bethlehem as well as Jesus, who is the morning day star. Bright red poinsettias symbolize that the baby boy born in Bethlehem will save us by his blood. White poinsettias stand for his purity.
Christmas wreaths appear hung on doors and in windows. The wreath is a circle that has no beginning or end like the eternal God and his everlasting love for us. A wreath made of evergreen is a sign of eternal life. In the center of the wreath is empty space—what our lives would be like without Jesus. The wreath is a sign of welcome, and Jesus always invites us to come to him.
Holly is used to make wreaths and other decorations. It has spiny leaves and red berries as a reminder of the suffering Jesus endured for us.
Christmas candles obviously stand for Jesus, the Light of the World.
Christmas lights too are for the Light that has come into the world.
Gifts We exchange gifts at Christmas in honor of Jesus, who is God’s best Gift to us and because the wise men presented gifts to the infant.
Candy canes This hard candy is like Jesus, our rock. The peppermint flavor reminds us of the wise men’s gift of spices. Their stripes remind us of the lashes Jesus received. The red color is like the blood Jesus shed, while the white stands for his purity. Candy canes are shaped like a staff and when turned upside down are the letter “J,” both symbols of Jesus.
Christmas stockings Hanging Christmas stockings may be related to a legend about the bishop St. Nicholas. When three girls in a village had no money for a dowry, one night St. Nicholas tossed three bags of gold coins through the window of their house. One bag landed in a stocking hung by the fireplace to dry. In another version of this story the bags ended up in shoes, which gave rise to the custom of putting out their shoes for the feast of St. Nicholas, in hopes of having them filled with goodies.
Mince Pie The fruit and spices in a mince pie are like the exotic gifts the wise men brought to Jesus.
What were your Christmas customs growing up? What customs does your family have now?
Daniel P. Horan, OFM, Franciscan Media, 133 pp., $15.99
The title of this book, “God Is Not Fair,” is the title of one of its forty-eight chapters or essays. These usually run only two pages and comprise a smorgasbord of reflections on relevant topics. They include clericalism, racism, the death penalty, care for creation, equality in the Church, and mercy. Horan states in his introduction that his reflections are founded on “a belief that we must consider our faith at the intersection of theology, Scripture and culture” and be willing to “to see with new eyes, think with open minds, and care with loving hearts.”
Horan divides his reflections into three parts. In the first part he discusses the Church in the modern world. The second part is composed of his thoughts on selected Gospel passages and resembles a collection of homilies. In the third part he focuses on everyone’s vocation—the call to discipleship.
The essays challenge us to examine our lives in the light of Gospel teaching. Repeatedly Horan exhorts us to walk in the footprints of Jesus. An appealing feature of the book is that it is laced with references to Pope Francis, St. Francis, and the Franciscan way of life.
The themes and thoughts in this book are rooted in Horan’s experiences of writing articles for America magazine, Give Us This Day, and in honor of the Year of Consecrated Life. Although comparatively young, age thirty-two, Horan has a wealth of wisdom to share.