The cat wonders why once a year we bring a tree into the house. He walks around it, sniffs it and bats at the ornaments he can reach. In his younger years, he tried to climb it.
He isn’t the only one who wonders, I’m sure. The answer lies in history. In Germany, decorating a tree at the time of the winter solstice has gone on since long before the birth of Christ. They didn’t bring the tree indoors; it was left standing outside, laden with gifts of food. Martin Luther is given credit for bringing the first Christmas tree indoors. He lighted it with candles as a symbol of Christ’s birth, and used it to teach his children.
It may not be a common practice, but we have always celebrated Advent. The Advent wreath, with its candles, helps us mark the time before we celebrate Christmas. It also helps to keep us focused on the real Reason for the season.
Like the tree, holly was a part of pagan rituals. Early Christians didn’t always want to draw attention to themselves, especially in Rome. The Christmas celebration happened to occur around the time of Saturnalia, at the time of the winter solstice.
The Romans brought in holly and ivy to decorate their homes for this festival, and so did the Christians. However, the Christians used them to symbolize aspects of their faith. As an example, the red berries stand for the blood of Christ.
It is said that a small boy in Mexico brought a gift to the manger that turned out to be the beautiful poinsettia. He was very poor, and had no gift to leave at the alter. An angel appeared and told him to pick some weeds by the roadside and place them at the manger. He did, and the weeds turned into the beautiful plant.
The shape of the flowers reminds us of the Star of Bethlehem, that brought the Wise Men to Jesus. The red color reminds us of the shed blood of Christ.
Many people put up a crèche or have a Nativity set. These are often grouped together from the beginning. However, we follow a different tradition. We have a “stage” area at one end of the table. The week’s events are displayed there. At the other end of the table, the Wise Men start their journey. Every week, they move closer to the stage. They arrive at Epiphany, and then we put the set away for another year.
Christmas symbols are a great way to both show and teach our faith in Jesus. It helps the children learn that Christmas isn’t about the presents, or Santa or Frosty. It’s about the birth of Christ.