5 holiday symbols and what they mean

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Around late October right after all the Halloween excitement has died down, you will notice that people start putting up shiny and colourful decorations in homes, commercial establishments and even offices. If you’re wondering what all of these mean, we have listed down some common holiday decorations you may see that are symbolic of the season. Some of them may have had religious significance in the past, but with the celebration becoming more secular, many are regarded as mainly decorative.

Christmas tree

Christmas trees are the most popular holiday decorations in Canada but did you know that it predated the celebration? Ancient Romans used decorated evergreen trees in festivals that celebrated winter time. Evergreens (pine, cedar, spruce, etc.) symbolized life and magical powers in winter because their leaves remained green throughout the year.

In modern times, the first recorded use of trees decorated for Christmas was in Riga, Latvia in 1510. Later on, German Christmas trees were described to be adorned with paper roses, apples, candy and candles. These trees became popular in Britain in the 1840s when the Illustrated London News published a drawing of the royal family celebrating around a decorated tree. Meanwhile, the first Christmas tree in North America was reportedly seen in Sorel, Quebec in 1781 at a party hosted by the German Baroness von Riedsel for British and German soldiers. A balsam fir decorated with fruits and lit with white candles was the main decoration in the dining room. Today, Christmas trees are used all over Canada, whether fresh or in their plastic form. They are usually decorated with electric lights of various shapes and colours and festooned with many ornaments. Incidentally, Canada currently exports about 1.95 million fresh-cut Christmas trees to over 20 countries all over the world.

Santa Claus

The fat, bearded, jolly man dressed in red who gives out gifts to children around the world was actually based on a saint. St. Nicholas was a Turkish bishop who was known for his generous acts of charity. This made him the patron saint of mariners, merchants, bakers, travellers and children in many countries such as Greece, Germany and the Netherlands. The Dutch was said to have brought the idea of Saint Nicholas to the United States in the early 19th century. The Dutch name Sante Klaas evolved into Santa Claus. Meanwhile, the 1823 poem “The Night Before Christmas” cemented the image of the jolly old St. Nick that we know today. Cartoons and advertisements soon depicted Santa Claus with his sleigh and reindeer which enabled him to magically travel around the world in one night. Kids all over the world eagerly await his coming and welcome him by leaving a plate of cookies near the Christmas tree.

Did you know that Santa’s Post Office is in Canada? Children who send letters to Santa are received by Canada Post. Each child receives a response from him too! If your kids, nephews and nieces want to send their letters this Christmas, they can send it to: Santa Claus, North Pole H0H 0H0, Canada. They should send it early (before December 14) if they want to receive a response. No postage is required for letters from Canada.

Mistletoe

Together with the holly, ivy and evergreen trees, the mistletoe has long been a symbol of life and strength because they remained fresh throughout the year. Many households cut sprigs of mistletoe and holly to hang on their doors during winter. But aside from life and strength, the mistletoe is also known as a symbol of love. This was the result of ancient European legends and myths which endowed the mistletoe with powers of healing, fertility and love (see video below). This eventually led to the holiday tradition of kissing under the mistletoe. This belief became popular and spread throughout Europe then eventually into the New World (America) and carried on in modern times.


Why do we kiss under the mistletoe? Carlos Reif, TED-Ed

Snowflakes and snowmen

With the holidays being celebrated during winter in this part of the world, snowflakes and snowmen naturally became symbols of the season. In modern times, their status as emblems were amplified by many Christmas stories and carols that became popular and have since become classics. These included vivid descriptions of snow during the holidays (as in “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens), and in the case of snowmen, as characters coming to life and taking part in magical exploits (for example Frosty the Snowman who is featured in a song and in a movie).


Frosty the Snowman (with lyrics) sung by Gene Autry (KoyangiChick)

Nutcracker

The nutcracker started as a humble utility tool used to, well, crack nuts. In the 15th century, woodcarvers started making them in the form of soldiers, knights or kings. These would have mouths attached with a lever that would open and close for cracking nuts. It was a staple in most homes as according to German folklore, nutcrackers brought good luck to families and protected their homes. Later on, modern nutcrackers came to be regarded more as decorations at Christmastime rather than tools. They became popular especially in the 1950s when the story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” by E.T.A. Hoffman was interpreted into a ballet (with a score by Tchaikovsky). Today, ballet companies all over the world still perform The Nutcracker Ballet during the holidays including our own Royal Winnipeg Ballet.


Lang Lang – The Nutcracker Suite (from the Nutcracker and the Four Realms), DisneyMusicVevo

Happy holidays!
 
Sources: Religious symbolism of a secular Christmas, Christopher D. Cunningham, Third Hour; Christmas in Canada, James H. March, The Canadian Encyclopedia; The meaning of Christmas symbols, Sherri Osborn, the Spruce; Why do we kiss under the mistletoe? Carlos Reif, TED-Ed; Accessed November 11, 2019.

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