Christmas, a season of joy, lights, and festivities, is steeped in symbols that have traveled through time and across cultures. But have you ever stopped to ponder the origins of these beloved icons?
From twinkling stars atop evergreen trees to stockings hung with care, each emblem carries a story, echoing the spirit of the season. Join us as we unwrap the history and meanings behind Christmas’s most cherished symbols!
1. Christmas Tree
Although myth, folklore, and legend surround the Christmas tree, the tradition may have been first made popular by Martin Luther. It’s believed that stars shining through evergreen trees captured his attention on a walk one night.
He later wrote about this in a sermon, leading parishioners to decorate trees with candles to symbolize allowing Jesus into their homes. In modern times, such trees still represent the light of Jesus to the world.
Additionally, they are associated with an ancient ritual surrounding the pagan holiday, Saturnalia. Ultimately, there are probably as many meanings as there are trees!
Stars have been associated with Christmas ever since the Bible chronicled the story of the three Wise Men following the star to Baby Jesus. This is often referred to as the Star of Bethlehem.
However, the stars used at Christmastime are also a sign of shining hope for humanity, fulfilled prophecy, and a general heavenly sign. They are the most popular Christmas tree toppers.
Candles, often called mirrors of starlight, also represent the Star of Bethlehem. The most popular use, however, was to light Christmas trees before electricity was invented.
When placed in windows, they’re believed to symbolize the Christian faith, but they’re also used for Hanukkah, a Jewish holiday, and Kwanzaa, an African holiday that also falls in December.
Angels are the second most popular Christmas tree topper. Angels are present throughout the story of the first Christmas, beginning with the Archangel of Revelation, Gabriel, who greets the mother of Jesus with the famous “Hail Mary.” Joseph is also visited by an angel, and angels appear to shepherds in the field to announce Jesus’ birth.
“Nativity” is a word derived from the Latin term “Natal,” which refers to birth. The Christmas scene we call the Nativity usually depicts Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus, as well as the shepherds who came to visit that night. Most nativity scenes also have at least one angel.
In some nativities, wise men are depicted as visiting Jesus in the manger. Nativity plays are the most common plays at Christmastime around the world, and nativity displays are one of the best-loved Christmas scenes worldwide.
Ringing bells have a long-term association with the Christmas holiday. They can also be traced back to pagan Winter Solstice celebrations, where they were thought to dispel evil spirits and ghosts.
They are also believed to herald both the birth of Jesus and the death of Satan. Christmas bells are used by carolers, and many churches ring them to indicate the beginning of a religious service at Christmastime.
Wreaths can be traced back to ancient Rome when they were hung on doors to signal victory. Roman women wore them as headdresses as a status symbol as well, but they were most famous as a Christmas decoration.
The wreath symbolizes love’s eternal nature, eternal life, infinity, Christian charity, and affection between humans all around the world. Their most common use at Christmas is as a front door decoration.
8. Candy Canes
The term “Candy Cane” first became popular in 1866, and their first association with Christmas is believed to be the year 1874. Christians believe the “J” shape they feature represents the first letter of Jesus’ name or a shepherd’s crook when turned upside down.
It’s thought that the red color symbolizes Christ’s shed blood, and the white, represents his purity. The very first candy canes were reportedly made by a German man who needed a way to keep youngsters silent for the longer religious services that were held during the Christmas holidays.
Poinsettias are by far the most popular Christmas plant, and their association with this holiday traces back to their native Mexico. It’s said that a young girl was sad because she had nothing to bring to the Christmas Eve service to place at the Nativity for Jesus, so she picked a bouquet of wildflowers.
Folklore claims that these flowers turned into the “Flowers of the Holy Night,” a.k.a. Poinsettias, upon her entering the church! Poinsettia flowers and leaves are also thought to symbolize the blood of Christ and the Star of Bethlehem.
Mistletoe is a peculiar plant that must live on whatever tree it’s attached to, or otherwise it dies. It’s long been the symbol of love, hence, the tradition of “kissing under the mistletoe,” and some believe the ancient Druids used it to promote fertility. Much folklore surrounds this interesting plant, and it will likely always be used at Christmastime.
11. Holly Leaves
The prickly Holly leaf represents Jesus’ crown of thorns, worn when he was crucified. It’s often said the berries symbolize the drops of blood that came from the cross, and, indeed, it’s known as the “Christ Thorn” in Scandinavia.
In medieval England, it was said that whoever brought the first Holly leaf into the house during winter would rule the home throughout the year, but if brought in before, it would bring bad luck. Holly leaves also stand for strength and immortality.
The origin of decorating trees with ornaments dates all the way back to the 16th century, when Europeans would decorate “Paradise Trees” with apples to symbolize the story of Adam and Eve.
These were often set up at Christmastime and used in holiday plays. As time went on, more people decorated trees at Christmas, ornaments got fancier and fancier, and now the decorations symbolize essentially anything one desires!
The very first association of gifts and Christmas dates back to those famous three Kings, Melchior, Balthazar, and Gaspar, who brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh to Jesus shortly after his birth.
Ribbons were added to the tradition later to symbolize how all individuals should be tied together in goodwill and unity throughout the holiday season.
14. Santa Claus-Saint Nicholas
St. Nicholas was reportedly a real Bishop who lived in the 4th century in the part of the world that is now called Turkey. He was rich but very kind and was renowned for assisting poor people and giving secret gifts to those in need.
No one knows if all the legends are true about this character, but most historians agree that he is the historical figure on which our modern “Santa Claus” is based.
15. Christmas Cards
Christmas cards have been sent for centuries, but the first recorded use of “Merry Christmas” in card form was in 1611. Looking more like an ornamental manuscript, this “card” was received by King James I of England.
The custom of ordinary people sending them to each other was created by Sir Henry Cole in England in 1843, when his friend, John Horsley, added an artistic touch to something Cole had written for the holidays.
White doves have been a Christmastime symbol for numerous centuries. This originated in the Bible, where these birds symbolize peace on earth. They were also brought to baby Jesus by shepherds, who could not afford gifts such as frankincense and gold, but rather brought doves, honey, and fruit.
They also symbolize the Holy Spirit, faith, forgiveness, and love. Regarding Christmas, this symbol is unique to Christianity and similar religions.
Stockings are highly recognizable symbols of Christmas. Many historians believe they got their start even before the holiday was widely celebrated. The Greek Christian bishop–on whom the character of Santa Claus is based–was thought to drop gold coins into the stockings of young ladies who had no dowries.
Because stockings were typically dried in front of a fireplace, it was believed that the chimney was used to transport them, hence the symbolism.
18. Christmas Lights
Christmas lights were used for centuries, although their popularity exploded in many countries around the world in the mid-1800s, when Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, introduced the idea.
Previously, it had primarily been a German tradition where it symbolized Jesus as the light of the world. However, for centuries, many pagan religions also decorated Christmas trees with candles to represent planets and stars.
19. Yule Logs
The tradition of burning Yule Logs dates back to pre-medieval times, although the actual term was not documented in writing until 1686. It’s believed to be a Nordic tradition, having its roots in Winter Solstice celebrations in northern Europe.
Ashes from Yule Logs were called “potash” and were used as plant fertilizers. Traditionally, throwing the ashes out on Christmas day was considered very unlucky, but saving them until the new year was believed to ensure good luck.
20. Gingerbread Men
Although gingerbread has been around at least since 2000 BC, Queen Elizabeth made gingerbread men popular at the beginning of her reign in 1558. Historians believe she had gingerbread cookies decorated like her favorite courtiers.
Then, of course, Jim Ayelsworth wrote the cherished classic, “The Gingerbread Man,” which became a popular holiday story. Ginger itself is regarded as a winter spice, so the gingerbread man will likely always be a Christmas favorite.
Snowflakes have long been a symbol of rebirth and purity and are believed to signify humankind’s ability to grow, change, and become new each day.
Snowflakes are associated with Christmas since many areas of the world experience snow during this holiday season. Songs such as “Winter Wonderland” and “White Christmas” also helped to keep snowflakes popular at Christmas.
Although virtually everyone associates reindeer with Christmas and Santa’s sleigh, it’s interesting that the original Saint Nicholas was from the area we now know as Turkey, where reindeer don’t exist.
Reindeer made their debut in connection to Santa in 1821 in a long section of a Christmas poem entitled “A New Year’s Present to the Little Ones.” The author remained anonymous, but his mother was from Antarctica!
23. Christmas Crackers
Interestingly, Christmas crackers are actually candy and were created by London sweet shop owner Tom Smith in the mid-1800s. He was intrigued with the way French bonbons were wrapped and created “cosaques,” which were similar.
His Christmas “crackers” were wrapped in fancy paper, and when pulled from either end, the wrapping made a cracking sound as the goodie was retrieved, hence the name. Fancily-wrapped candy at Christmastime has been popular ever since.
24. Christmas Cookies
Cookies have a long-standing association with Christmas, dating back to medieval times when participants of solstice feasts demanded more than beer and wine at such festivals. Bakers obliged by making small, sweet tidbits from sugar, butter, flour, spices, and dried fruit.
These eventually became “Christmas cookies” and, by the late 18th century, were wildly popular in Europe and America. England boasts the first cookie cutters, which eventually birthed the Christmas cookie exchange tradition.
25. Mince Pies
No one knows how long mince pies have been around, but they became quite popular in the United Kingdom during the Georgian and Stuart eras. Primarily a status symbol, it’s believed that the higher the number of ingredients in each pie, the wealthier the household was from which they came.
For this reason, they were typically stuffed with meats such as lamb, as well as fruit, spices, and nuts. Such pies are rarely made with meat today, but they remain a popular Christmastime fruit pie.
26. Advent Calendar
Advent is simply the countdown to Christmas Eve, beginning four Sundays prior. The Advent calendar tracks these days and is different each year, depending on that year’s calendar.
The advent typically lasts anywhere from 22 and 28 days, and many Catholic and Christian households follow this calendar each year during the holidays.
Figures of Nutcrackers became quite popular as Christmas decorations following the release of the famous Nutcracker ballet in the 19th century. Originally, however, they were good luck symbols used in Germany and the Czech Republic.
Their roots go back to the 1600s when they were believed to protect a person’s home and family. They also represented power and strength and were said to keep danger and evil spirits at bay.
Turkey dinners did not become fashionable for Christmas until the mid-1800s, following the sensational holiday story, “A Christmas Carol,” by Charles Dickens, during which the Cratchit family’s goose was exchanged for a turkey at the end of the story.
However, Turkey enjoyed transient popularity as far back as the 1500s, when King Henry VIII opted for roasted turkey instead of the typical swan one year.
Sheep are primarily associated with Christmas because of the shepherds who were the first to hear of Jesus’ birth when visited by angels. Sheep are almost always depicted in nativity scenes.
The Bible calls Jesus “The Lamb of God” and “The Good Shepherd,” and Christians are often referred to as his “flock.”
The first recorded use of fruitcake was by Romans to sustain soldiers during war. That type probably resembled what we would refer to today as an “energy bar.”
Through the centuries, this rich holiday favorite was sometimes called “Twelfth Cake,” and different varieties were eaten on each of the 12 days of Christmas. In the 1800s, it became fashionable to add large decorations and white icing as status symbols.
Tinsel was originally designed in 17th-century Europe by hammering actual silver alloy to a thin consistency and cutting it into strips to use as Christmas tree decorations.
The objective was to create a nonflammable ornament that would reflect the tree’s candles and create the illusion of twinkling stars.
A donkey’s primary association with Christmas is as part of the Nativity. The Bible records that Joseph led Mary on a donkey to Bethlehem to give birth to Jesus.
Donkeys also symbolize peace and humility in the Christian religion. For example, on what we now celebrate as Palm Sunday, the Bible says Jesus rode into the city on the lowly donkey.
33. Roasted Chestnuts
It’s a mystery when and where roasted chestnuts originally appeared, but they were believed to signify Christian chastity. They were also a holiday snack in Rome, sold by street vendors during Winter Solstice, and later, at Christmas.
In more modern times, roasted chestnuts became a favorite winter nut, and then the classic Christmas Song came along and boosted their holiday popularity.
Although considered a modern Christmas decoration, snowmen have been documented since the Middle Ages. Bob Eckstein, who authored “The History of the Snowman” claims they were associated with Christmas since 1380.
Not surprisingly, “Frosty the Snowman” created a permanent association between snowmen and Christmas in Europe and America. Prince Albert of the Victorian era also had a hand in incorporating the tradition of the snowman into England’s holiday season.
35. Plum Pudding
Christmas pudding dates back to the 14th century, when it was a staple of Christmas dinner, but much more like a soup than a pudding. Later that century, the tradition changed, and recipes demanded 13 ingredients for the pudding, representing Jesus and the 12 disciples.
By 1601, the standard recipe changed again, and the pudding became less soup-like and more of a desert. King George I re-established it as an official Christmas dinner component in 1714, and it’s been around ever since.
British, Scandinavian, and Germanic folklore are responsible for linking elves to Christmas. According to German paganism, elves were creatures of light and could live in wells, forests, or underground.
They supposedly had magical powers to protect people from evil spirits. Scandinavian storytellers were responsible for portraying these mischievous fairies as elves who helped Santa, which became a lasting tradition.
The obvious significance of the manger is as the place where Mary placed Jesus when he was born.
There were no vacancies at any of the inns since people were ordered to travel to pay taxes, and so many had converged on the area at once. Thus, in the famous nativity scene, Baby Jesus is placed in a manger.
Camels are often seen at Christmastime, and there are two reasons for this. The most famous is that the three Kings rode camels when they followed the star to the newly born Christ child.
However, in some areas of the world, such as Egypt, Africa, and the Middle East, Santa is depicted as riding a camel, so this symbol will likely always have a double meaning!
39. Pine Cones
For over 3000 years, Anglican, Catholic, and other Orthodox churches have used pine cones to retrieve water from a bucket or basin and sprinkle it on people for baptism or on objects such as the ancient advent wreath.
It was these sprinkling ceremonies that put pine cones in the limelight regarding religious holidays. However, they’re also a highly popular way to decorate Christmas wreaths.
40. Three Wise Men
The Magi–or Wise Men–were both real and symbolic. They were recorded in the Bible as foreign kings who traveled to visit Baby Jesus, but were also wealthy wise men who were asked to help the poor and unschooled.
At Christmastime, along with their presence in nativity scenes, Christians believe they symbolize the wisdom in believing in the Holy Trinity.
The sleigh is most closely associated with Santa Claus. However, American author Washington Irving wrote about Santa’s “wagon of toys” in 1812. It was not until the anonymous author of the poem “A New Year’s Present to the Little Ones” mentioned the mysterious reindeer that the wagon became a sleigh.
Of course, sleigh riding is a popular winter sport, and sleighs are often mentioned in Christmas carols and seen in Christmas cartoons.
42. Sugar Plums
Sugar plums are tasty dried plums coated in sugar, and their association with Christmas comes almost exclusively from cultural phenomenons such as the Sugar Plum Fairy in Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and the famous line, “While visions of sugar plums danced in their heads,” from The Night Before Christmas.
Symbolically, sugarplums also stand for joy and compassion, two things that coincide with the holiday season!
43. Christmas Ham
Ham has always been a popular alternative at holiday dinners if turkey or goose aren’t appealing. However, Christmas ham dates back distinctly to ancient Germany and the German mythological God, Freyr.
The latter was the God of boars, harvest, and fertility, and according to certain paganistic rituals, he would bless homes that served ham at Christmastime. Perhaps this is why black forest ham is particularly popular as a holiday roast.
44. Color Red
The color red has threefold significance at Christmastime. It represents Jesus’ blood when he was crucified. It’s also the color of holly berries–often referred to as “Christmas berries.”
Finally, red had pagan symbolism in ancient Rome, during Winter Solstice celebrations, where red berries were burned to depict old things burning away.
Multiple theories exist concerning eggnog’s origin. It may have been a hot milk posset to which curdled cream, eggs, and nutmeg were added. “Nog,” however, was the name of a very strong East Anglia beer variation.
Others say the mixture originated from a Scottish drink called nugged ale, which was consumed hot. The drink traveled to America in the 1700s, but no one knows exactly why it is served almost exclusively at Christmas.
46. Snow Globe
The manufacturing of snow globes traces back to 19th century Europe, but the first description of this decoration came from the 1878 Paris Universal Exposition, where a local glassmaker showcased “hollow ball paperweights.”
These contained white powder and, when shaken, depicted realistic-looking snowstorms. Other glassmakers went on to create these unique paperweights. It’s believed they became popular at Christmastime simply because snow is so heavily associated with this holiday in most parts of the world.
47. North Pole
The North Pole is famous as the home of Santa Claus, his elves, and his reindeer. However, it’s likely the pre-Santa Claus character, Father Christmas, is responsible for this geographical distinction.
Father Christmas is an older legend than Santa Claus and has its roots in European mythology, where he was believed to carry the “Spirit of Winter.” Father Christmas didn’t bring presents to children, but the combination of the two legends has probably led to Santa’s home becoming the North Pole.
48. Color Green
The color green symbolizes life and everlasting light. In ancient Rome, homes were decorated during the new year with evergreen branches and fir trees were brought inside during winter to symbolize rebirth.
Additionally, a popular legend states that at Jesus’ birth, in the bleak midwinter, trees throughout the world shook the snow from their branches to reveal green shoots underneath.
49. Christmas Carols
In the century following Jesus’ birth, a Roman Bishop reportedly stated that a ballad called “Angel’s Hymn” should be sung in Rome each year at that time. Another famous song regarded as a Christmas Hymn was composed by Comas of Jerusalem in 760 for the Greek Orthodox Church.
Following this, numerous songwriters throughout Europe began writing “Christmas Carols,” many of which are still sung to this day.
50. Gingerbread Houses
Numerous researchers believe the first gingerbread houses resulted from the popular Grimm fairy tale, “Hansel and Gretel,” in which two children who are lost in the forest stumble upon an edible house.
However, some historians claim that edible houses made from gingerbread were a Christmas tradition as far back as the 1600s. Either way, we likely owe this tasty treat to Germany!