Many of the symbols we use in worship today pre-date Christianity or have roots in other traditions, including the secular. As we have made them our own, they have given us tangible ways of expressing the deeper aspects of our faith that lie beyond words.
The Advent season is a prime example of “borrowing” from older traditions and bringing those elements into Christian worship. Early Christians living amid non-Christian celebrations often adapted secular symbols for sacred purposes. Both life and light, important to the winter solstice festivals, became symbols representing Christ as the source of Life and Light of the World. We use many of these during “hanging of the greens” services. Here are a few:
Evergreens: The most universal element of the Christmas season is the evergreen. The evergreen was a symbol of peace, joy, and victory among the ancient Romans, and early Christian households placed them in their windows to show that Christ had entered the home. Evergreens are so named because they are ever alive and ever green even in the middle of winter. We use them to symbolize the unchanging nature of God and the everlasting life we have through Christ.
Tree: The Egyptians took green date palms into their homes during winter to signify the triumph of life over death. The Romans trimmed trees with small trinkets and sometimes placed candles on the tree with an image of the sun god. In ancient times, the cedar was considered the tree of royalty as well as a symbol of immortality. It was used in purification rites. Today, the Christmas tree is symbolic of Christ the King, who offers eternal life and purifies the hearts of believers. Some churches decorate the tree with Chrismons, which are symbols of Christ’s life.
Mistletoe: In ancient times, the mistletoe was a symbol of peace and enemies often met under it to declare a truce. It became a Christian symbol of the peace of God.
Holly: The Romans used holly to honor Saturn, the god of agriculture, and exchanged it as an expression of good will. The early Christian tradition held that the crown of thorns was made of holly leaves and early wreaths were made from the plant at Christmas as a symbol of this, the red berries representing the blood drops caused by the thorns on the brow of Jesus.
Advent Wreath: Wreaths were an early symbol of victory and were often placed around the head or neck of the winner of athletic events in Greece, where the Olympic games originated. As Christians adapted the symbol, wreaths were suspended from the ceiling or an arch to represent the tree of life. The circular shape represents the infinite character of God, having neither beginning nor end. Seasonal wreaths are formed from evergreens to symbolize eternal life and God’s unending love.
Candles: Candles were an important part of ancient cultures during the winter as the days became shorter and the nights longer. Christians adapted the symbol to represent Christ as the Light of the world shining in the darkness. Many churches use candles combined with a wreath to form an Advent wreath. Four candles –– representing the prophecies and promises of peace, hope, joy and love –– form the circle of the wreath, with a larger candle in the center representing Christ, the Light of the world.
Poinsettia: The poinsettia is a more recent addition to the Christmas services. The plant was first brought to the United States from Mexico in 1829 by Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett. The Aztecs considered it to be a symbol of purity. In the Christian tradition, its bright red color represents both the blood of Christ and that of the infants ordered killed by Herod. The plant’s star-shaped form represents the star that led the wise men to the Christ Child.
Although these, like other Christian symbols, may have originated outside our tradition, that does not invalidate their significance to us in modern worship. It is simply another way in which the gospel continues to give new meaning to the old throughout all generations.