On the tail end of Black Friday and Cyber Monday we “suddenly” see appearing the symbols of the Holiday Season in every store window and throughout virtually every neighborhood. Christmas trees, lights and ornaments, nativity scenes, Hanukah menorahs, and Kwanzaa kinaras light up the season with beauty. This season means many things to many people, and the season’s symbols are varied and diverse. Some people choose to merely enjoy their aesthetic beauty. The “season of lights
” brings many images that are pleasing to the eye. Others see the various symbols of the season only as reminders of the onslaught of stress associated with gift buying, decorating, and entertaining. Still others reject the symbols altogether as outmoded and irrelevant.
How should we as Christians view the symbols associated with Christmas? There is plenty of controversy surrounding the use of Christmas trees, lights, and ornaments, because of the notion that many of them originated as pagan symbols, and have nothing to do with the birth of Christ. While this is true in some cases, some of the symbols of Christmas, as is the case with other Christian symbols, have been “redeemed” from their secular meanings. For example:
- The erection of the Christmas tree stemmed (excuse the pun) from an encounter between the Christian Saint Boniface (672-754 AD) and pagan Norse tribes, for whom trees (specifically oak trees) were symbols of the pagan god Thor. In a bold move, Saint Boniface cut down the sacred oak tree in their presence to demonstrate that Thor had no power. When Boniface saw a fir tree growing in the roots of the old oak, he took this as a sign of the superiority of the Christian faith. He declared, “Let Christ be the center of your households”, and thus the fir tree was thought of as a sign of the Christian faith. The lighting of it symbolized Christ as light in a dark world.
- The widespread use of Christmas trees began with Martin Luther, who thought of them as a symbol of the tree of life in the Garden of Eden.
- Although “Santa Claus” comes from the Dutch Sinterklaas, a mythic figure, the mythic figure is actually derived from the story of Saint Nicholas, the son of wealthy Christian parents who wanted to use his riches to secretly bless the poor. At night he would secretly put coins in the shoes of those (especially children) who left them out for him. His practice took root as a means of Christian charity.
- Although the use of Christmas lights are part of a tradition that began as a secular celebration of the winter solstice (the longest night of the year), it also is reminiscent of times when Christians were persecuted for gathering together. A candle in the window of a home was a signal indicating that worship was taking in that home.
Thus, although many of the symbols of Christmas have ties to secular traditions, they also have roots in symbolism that is meaningful for Christians. And Christians are not unfamiliar with “redeemed” symbols. Even the cross, which we hold high, was originally merely a method of Roman execution, a symbol of horrible punishment and shame. However because of the One who hung on a cross, the symbol has been “redeemed” as a sign of victory and the overcoming of death (a sign of OUR redemption). Thus, the symbol itself is not the important thing, but rather that to which the symbol refers.
Our problem is that we either focus too much on the symbols, or we allow them to point us to the wrong places. The lights could
make us think of the “The Light of the World.” The beautiful tree could
remind us of the supremacy of Christ and the new life that He gives. Even Santa Claus could
help us think of the spirit of giving (not getting), and the ultimate gift, that of Jesus Christ. Perhaps if we refocused
the symbols of the season, the season itself might have new meaning for us.
Be blessed, and be a blessing!