There are many beautiful Christmas traditions that stir us to a deeper appreciation of this holy season. Candles and colored lights awaken our senses and remind us of the Light of Christ entering the world. The scents of holiday cooking fill our homes and our hearts with thoughts of sharing with family and urge us to share with those in need.
We also experience the fragrance of fresh evergreens that remind us of our earthly home’s connection to our loving Creator.
If you celebrate Christmas, you likely have had Christmas trees, wreaths, or garlands in your home. Beyond the Yuletide decorations, evergreens also have symbolic meaning. Evergreens for the early Christians symbolized everlasting life because their boughs stayed green all year.
The wreaths, swags, and garlands we buy for our homes and churches are made from several kinds of evergreen boughs, each having its own symbolic meaning in Christian history and art. Listed here are the more common ones used for Christmas decorations.
Balsam (Abies balsamea), or balsam fir, is a native tree throughout the United States and Canada and a lovely tall pyramidal evergreen for your landscape. It is the commercial evergreen of choice for wreaths due to its distinct fragrance and because the flattened needles stay green and attached through the long Christmas season. It has the symbolic meaning of eager anticipation.
Bay Laurel (Laurus nobilis) is from the Mediterranean region and is often used in cooking. It symbolizes a just reward, a victory over death, pointing to the Resurrection. Its history of being a reward for victory is prominent in Greek and Roman culture and the Bible.
Cedar (Cupressocyparis leylandii), or Leyland cypress, is used in holiday decorations to add a broad, yellower leaf texture. It’s most remarkable feature is how long it stays fresh after being cut from the tree. For this reason it is indicative of incorruptibility and healing and so is associated with eternal life through Christ.
Cones, nuts, and seedpods represent new life and the Resurrection. There are many reiterations in the Bible about seeds dying, as well as the familiar themes of dying to self and living a new life in Christ.
Fir (Abies) is a large family of evergreens that represents lifting up. The appellation comes from the growth habit of the tree, which is straight and narrow—a pillar of strength. It was often used to mark gravesites, a lifting up of the soul to heaven.
Holly (Ilex sp.) has multiple symbolisms. During the Renaissance it meant to foresee, to understand in such a way so as to predict or prophesy—as in the Biblical references to prophesying the coming of Christ. This plant’s symbol converted in heraldry represents truth. Holly is also used as a reminder of where Jesus’ birth and life will lead; its prickly leaves are reminiscent of the crown of thorns and the red berries of the blood he shed upon the cross.
Ivy (Hedera) is a genus of over a dozen species of evergreen climbing vines and woody groundcovers. It holds one of the dearest images: that of clinging to God. It also symbolizes protection, joy, and fidelity—all consistent with to whom we cling. It is a lovely plant often used in the sanctuary and depicted in stained glass windows—and now you know why!
Juniper (Juniperis) symbolizes protection, and Junipers do that well! Juniper branches are prickly and harsh, making it a great shrub to plant under windows to ward off intruders. In early monasteries, juniper branches were used in the asperges of the congregation because of the abundance of holy water held by its needles and its symbolism—a double blessing of protection. Juniper branches were also burned as an intense incense to overcome latent odors and used medicinally for its anti-bacterial properties. Juniper trees were a common and essential element in monastery gardens.
Mistletoe is the common name for Viscum album, European mistletoe, or for similar parasitic plants in the genus Santalaceae. Its growth habit of attaching itself to the branches of trees and developing lovely balls of evergreen leaves is the reason for its symbolism: to overcome difficulty.
Pine (Pinus) is the genus of long soft-needled conifers. These are long-lived trees that grow from a hundred to a thousand or more years. Two particularly ancient and well-known trees here in the United States are found in California and Nevada; Methuselah grows in California and is thought to be about 4,600 years old; the other in Nevada was nearly 4,900 years when it was cut down. In the broader historical sense of symbolism, pine connotes any conifer that remains green throughout the dark winter, conveying eternal life.
Spruce (Picea) branches grow concentrically layered in a whorl around the trunk. The growth pattern creates a sturdy system of support for the boughs above. This allows spruce trees to withstand harsh weather and excessive snow without broken limbs. That’s why its symbolism makes sense: the boughs represent hope in adversity. This is a lovely sentiment when we think of what our Holy Mother Mary faced before the birth of Jesus and the challenges the Holy Family experienced shortly after the Savior’s birth.
With this information you can create Christmas decorations that have special meaning to you, not merely for the visual effect.
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The legend of Mary and the juniper tree
An ancient legend speaks of the time when the Holy Family fled from Herod’s wrath and were being pursued by his soldiers. The distance between the soldiers and the tiny family was lessening. The burro in its fright bolted towards a giant juniper tree that miraculously opened up its branches like arms and enfolded Joseph, Mary, Baby Jesus, and their burro so they were safely hidden from their pursuers. In gratitude, Mary gave the tree her blessing, and to this day, juniper boughs—a symbol of protection—can still be seen hanging in stables and barns on Christmas Day.
History of the Christmas tree
The memorial of Adam the Patriarch is December 24. He is the patron of gardeners, being the one who first tended the Garden of Eden. On this date a tradition began to decorate a Paradise Tree with apples or quince representing the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. During the 16th century symbolic wafers were added to represent the Eucharist, the Fruit of Life. In Germany this tree was renamed Christbaum or Christ Tree, which we now call a Christmas tree. The Church had issues with symbolic Communion wafers being hung on a tree, and with their removal the Germans created angels, hearts, and stars from white pastry dough in observance of those things from heaven. With brown dough representing the earth, they formed humans and animals. Eventually marzipan was used to create decorations, and for this reason it was renamed the Sugar Tree in the 17th century. Children always looked with eager anticipation to the Epiphany when the tree was taken down—the final gift of the season was the distribution of the sweet decorative treats.
A wreath, being a circle, has no beginning or end and symbolizes the eternity of God, the immortality of the soul, and the everlasting life found in Christ. When decorated with evergreens (which are symbolic of life itself), the wreath points to God’s gift of life even when the world is dark. Advent candles, symbolizing the coming Light of Christ, are often displayed within a wreath for this reason.
How to make a swag
- 6–10 pieces of assorted evergreen boughs in varying lengths and textures
- accents such as small cones, ornaments, seed pods, or grass fronds
- paddle wire
- hand pruner
Assemble on a flat surface to keep the swag from curling as you work. Determine how long you want the swag to be and cut a couple pieces of evergreens to length. Secure paddle wire to the top quarter of the boughs. Using two shorter pieces, lay them in a fan arrangement on top, wire in place. Repeat until you are satisfied with the shape and arrangement of greens, adding your accent pieces along the way. Take two shorter pieces and attach them in the opposite direction to cover the cut tips, wire in place, and add a little extra wire to form a loop for hanging. Tie a bow around the wired section, and there you have it! You can make a smaller version with children by precutting the greens and using green pipe cleaners. The trick here is to slip the pipe cleaners around the center stem with a few small branches above to keep the swag from sliding apart.