Symbols & Meanings of Christmas: Holly, Ivy, Wreaths, & Mistletoe

Each day between December 1-25, we will look at one of the traditional symbols of Christmas, what these symbols mean and how they tell the Christmas story of our Savior’s birth.

What are Christmas decorations without some beautiful ivy wrapped around a stairway or wreath? Many people have used this delightful greenery as a Christmas decoration, but have you ever wondered why? Maybe you are familiar with the old 17th – 18th century Christmas carol, The Holly and the Ivy. How did this unique plant make its way into Christmas songs, traditions, and decorations?

Holly, Ivy and other greenery such as Mistletoe were originally used in pre-Christian times to help celebrate the Winter Solstice Festival and ward off evil spirits and to celebrate new growth. When Christianity came into Western Europe, some people wanted to keep the greenery, to give it Christian meanings.

Holly

Originally holly at Christmastime came from non-Christian traditions and originates from ancient Roman times. To the Romans, holly was the sacred plant of Saturn and the they used to send boughs of the bush to their friends along with gifts to mark the Saturnalia Festival. This feast was celebrated between December 17 and 23 – the darkest time of the year – to commemorate their Roman god of agriculture, creation and time and the transition from winter into spring and sunshine. Additionally, Roman citizens decorated their homes with garlands of evergreens and tied holly clippings to the presents they exchanged.

Over the years holly has become associated not only with the story of Jesus’ birth, but also his death. Many believe it symbolizes the crown of thorns Jesus wore, with the scarlet berries representing his blood.

Ivy

Ivy has to cling to something to support itself as it grows. This reminds us that we need to cling to God for support in our lives. Also because it stays green all year, it symbolizes eternal life. For a period, ivy was banished as décor by Christians due to its ability to grow in shade, which led to its association with secrecy and debauchery. However, the custom of decorating with holly and ivy during Christian holidays was eventually accepted.

Wreaths

The Advent wreath was first used by Lutherans in Germany in the 16th century, and in 1839, Lutheran priest Johann Hinrich Wichern used a wreath made from a cart wheel to educate children about the meaning and purpose of Christmas, as well as to help them count its approach, thus giving rise to the modern version of the Advent wreath. For every Sunday of Advent, starting with the fourth Sunday before Christmas, he would put a white candle in the wreath and for every day in between he would use a red candle. Today, Advent wreaths have four candles, and many of them have a white candle in the center, the Christ candle, which is lit on Christmas Day.

Wreaths are constructed of evergreens to represent everlasting life brought through Jesus and the circular shape of the wreath represents God, with no beginning and no end. For many Christians, the wreath represents Jesus’ suffering on the cross. The logic here is that the wreath represented the thorns worn by Christ on the cross, and the tiny red berries represent Christ’s blood. In this case, the evergreen represents eternal life. When Christians hang a wreath on their door or in their window, it’s an invitation for Christ to come into their home.

Mistletoe

When the first Christians came to Western Europe, there was an attempt to ban the use of Mistletoe as a decoration in Churches, but many still continued to use it! York Minster Church in the UK used to hold a special Mistletoe Service in the winter, where the people of York could come and be pardoned from sin.

The custom of kissing under Mistletoe originated in England with the earliest recorded date mentioning kissing under the mistletoe in 1784 in a musical. In 1843, there was kissing under the mistletoe in the illustrations in the first book version of “A Christmas Carol,” and this might have helped to popularize kissing under the mistletoe. The original custom was that a berry was picked from the sprig of Mistletoe before the person could be kissed and when all the berries had gone, there could be no more kissing.

The name mistletoe comes from two Anglo Saxon words ‘Mistel’ (which means dung) and ‘tan’ (which means) twig or stick! So you could translate Mistletoe as ‘poo on a stick’!!! Not exactly romantic, is it?

Research did not reveal any Christian symbolism to mistletoe, however, it also is an “evergreen” so the meanings for other evergreens can also apply to mistletoe.

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