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Christmas Traditions

When people celebrate Christmas around the world, there are many symbols and traditions that are the same, regardless of country or culture.

These familiar holiday sights and sounds have become part of general Christmas traditions in many places. Most point back to the original story of Christmas, the birth of Jesus Christ. Much of the music and many symbols and themes of the season are meant to remind people of the origin of Christmas.

Christmas Carols

Some Christmas music brings to mind images of magic reindeer and having a jolly time, but Christmas carols originally celebrated the circumstances of Jesus Christ’s birth, and the hope that sprung from that miraculous event. 

“Away in a Manger.”

This 19th-century hymn recalls the setting of what is now called the first Christmas. The carol begins:

“Away in a manger, no crib for his bed,

The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.”

Jesus was born to the virgin Mary after she and her betrothed husband, Joseph, traveled to Bethlehem to take part in a census. Because there were no vacant rooms in the crowded city, they found shelter in a stable instead. There Mary gave birth and laid the baby Jesus, the Son of God, in a lowly manger (see Luke 2:1–7). 

“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “Angels We Have Heard on High

Both of these hymns celebrate the story of “shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2:8). An angel appeared in the sky and announced the birth of Jesus: “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day . . . a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10–11). More angels appeared, all praising God, and the shepherds left quickly to find the Christ child in the stable (see Luke 2:13–16).

“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”

Rather than telling a story from the Bible, this hymn relates a personal experience of the author. The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, despairing over personal tragedies and the bloodshed in the American Civil War, experienced a moment of darkness where he imagined that peace on earth was impossible. However, he heard church bells ringing out and remembered what they represented—the love of Christ. He wrote:

“Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

‘God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;

The wrong shall fail,

The right prevail,

With peace on earth, good will to men.’”

Christmas Symbols

In many places in the world, Christmas is celebrated with lights, evergreen trees, ornaments, and candy canes. These and other symbols represent elements of the original Christmas story. 

Christmas Trees

Christmas trees are said to symbolize many things. The evergreen boughs represent God’s constant love and never-ending hope and the form of the tree points to heaven. 

Christmas Stars

The star ornament topping a Christmas tree represents the star of Bethlehem, the new light that appeared in the sky to signal Christ’s birth (see Matthew 2). Just as it drew wise men to Christ long ago, the star can symbolize the search for Christ that wise people continue to make in our day. 

Christmas Lights

Christ referred to Himself as the “light of the world.” He said, “He that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life” (John 8:12). The lights that people put on and in their houses can remind people of the Light of the World. More important, followers of Christ follow His example to serve, thus sharing His light through their actions.

Candy Canes

One common title for Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd, for Christ guided His followers with the love and care a shepherd has for sheep (see John 10:11). Candy canes are formed in the shape of a shepherd’s crook.

Gifts

Wise men came from the east, offering the Christ child gold, frankincense, and myrrh (see Matthew 2:11). Later, Jesus offered Himself as a gift to all when He suffered and died so that all might live again. Christmas gifts can symbolize—and help us recall—the unselfish love Jesus had for each of us.  

Santa Claus

One of the most well-known figures of Christmas is the kindly, chubby old man who delivers gifts across the world on Christmas Eve. Though there isn’t a strong connection between Santa Claus and Jesus Christ, jolly old Saint Nick can help us remember the importance of giving and sharing. The story of Santa Claus comes from St. Nicholas, a real Christian who lived more than a thousand years ago. Santa Claus is a fun symbol, especially for children who like getting presents, and he can help us remember that the spirit of love and giving that we commonly associate with Jesus Christ’s birth are the true center of the Christmas season. 

Christmas Themes

Even though much that is part of the Christmas season feels secular, often people strive to be more generous and loving during this time of year. This reflects the true meaning of Christmas and hearkens back to the reason for its celebration. 

Service

Jesus Christ was the ultimate example of service, so it makes sense that a season honoring Him would involve people doing good things for others. People often give gifts, donate to charities, and care for individuals in other ways.  

Peace

A famous true story tells of a temporary truce between opposing soldiers on Christmas Eve in 1914. World War I had already claimed many lives across Europe, but as each side—the British and French on one side, and Germans on the other—heard the other singing Christmas carols, they realized what they had in common. They ventured out of the trenches, exchanged small gifts, and even played soccer together. This event illustrates the “peace on earth, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14) that the angels spoke of when they announced the birth of Christ. A goal for personal or even universal peace is something that people tend to consider more carefully during the Christmas season. There is a spirit at Christmastime that overcomes divisions and helps heal broken bonds and broken hearts. This spirit of peace comes as people celebrate the life of Jesus Christ, whom the biblical prophet Isaiah called the Prince of Peace (see Isaiah 9:6).   

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