5 Christmas 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? As early as 133-31 B.C., 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. In 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 stout, bearded 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 riding his magic sleigh pulled by flying reindeer, which enabled him to travel the world in one night. This began the tradition of kids eagerly awaiting his mysterious visit. Despite not actually seeing Santa Claus, kids leave a plate of cookies and a glass of milk under the Christmas tree to anticipate his arrival (and his gifts of course!).

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! Your kids, grandkids, nephews and nieces can send their letters to: Santa Claus, North Pole H0H 0H0, Canada. They should do it early (before December 14) if they want to receive a response. No postage is required for letters from within Canada.


Together with the holly, ivy and evergreen trees, the mistletoe has long been a symbol of life and strength. This is 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, it is also known as a symbol of love. This came from 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 yuletide 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 numerous popular Christmas stories and carols that have since become classics. These include 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)


The nutcracker started as a humble 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 since, according to German folklore, nutcrackers brought good luck to families and protected their homes. Later on, nutcrackers came to be regarded more as Christmas decorations rather than tools. They became popular in the 1950s when the story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” by E.T.A. Hoffman was interpreted into a ballet. As it is a fantasy story set during Christmas time, households soon began decorating their mantels at Christmas with nutcracker soldiers. Today, ballet companies all over the world, including our own Royal Winnipeg Ballet, perform The Nutcracker Ballet during the holidays.

Lang Lang – The Nutcracker Suite (from the Nutcracker and the Four Realms), DisneyMusicVevo (an adaptation of the classic tale).

Happy holidays!
Article updated November 28, 2023.
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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