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Understanding the Symbols of Christmas

What do these symbols mean, and how did they become associated with Christmas?

By:  |  December 25, 2021  |    485 Words
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(Photo by Friso Gentsch/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Christmastime is filled with holiday traditions and shiny decorations. Symbols like candy canes and mistletoe are displayed, immersing us in the season. But what do these symbols mean, and how did they become associated with Christmas?


Whether sitting atop the Christmas tree or decorating windows, the holiday season wouldn’t be complete without stars. After the birth of Jesus, three wise men followed a star to Bethlehem.

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(Photo by Monika Skolimowska/picture alliance via Getty Images)


A candle is considered a “mirror of starlight” and another symbol of the star of Bethlehem. Before the invention of electricity, people lit candles and placed them (very carefully) on their trees. Candles are also used to celebrate Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights.


In pagan times, bells were used to drive out evil spirits. Later, bells were rung in churches to commemorate the birth of Jesus.

Tinsel on the Tree

What do tinsel and the “Christmas Spider” have to do with anything? This comes from an old European legend. In one version, a widowed mother was too poor to decorate her Christmas tree, so spiders spun elaborate webs on the tree to help. When the mother and her family woke on Christmas morning, they opened the curtains and sunlight turned the webs silver and gold.

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In another version of this tale, she was cleaning and swept all the house spiders to a far corner in the home. They found the Christmas tree and danced in delight, spinning webs around the tree. Either Santa Claus or Jesus, depending on the legend, saw the webs and found them beautiful. To keep the woman from cleaning them off, he turned the webs into strands of silver and gold.

Candy Canes

Jesus is often referred to as the “Good Shepherd,” so these candies are made in the shape of a shepherd’s crook. The red stripe represents blood from Christ’s sacrifice, and the white symbolizes his purity.

Colors of Christmas

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Red and green are the classic colors of Christmas. Just as with the candy canes, the color red represents the blood spilled when Jesus died on the cross. Green represents everlasting light and life. A legend suggests that when Jesus was born, the trees around the world shook off the snow from their branches to reveal new shoots of green.

Gifts with Bows and Ribbons

Besides adding that extra touch to a wrapped present, what is the significance of using a bow or ribbon? The idea of gift-giving started at the birth of Christ when people brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the newborn babe. A ribbon is used to represent how people should be “tied” together by bonds of goodwill and unity.

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