However, they can serve to show us how Christianity has been able to utilize — and even absorb — symbols from other religious backgrounds to teach about the truths of salvation history.
“The Catholic Encyclopedia,” citing St. Augustine, explains that in looking at secular symbols being transformed by the church, we should remember that, “the spirit is the essential: the church assimilates to herself what she takes, or, if she cannot adapt, she rejects it.”
The church’s celebration of Christmas, the feast of the birth of Christ, did not really develop until about the fifth century, after the fall of the Roman Empire. (The first and main feast day for Christians has always been Easter.) By that time, Christianity had spread to many countries, where there were mid-winter festivals. In some of these mid-winter traditions, we can now recognize our own Christmas symbols.
- From about the third century before Christ, Rome had marked the feast of Saturn on Dec. 17. This grew to a weeklong feast characterized by parties, gift-giving and role reversals. Homes were decorated with evergreens and mistletoe, plants considered sacred to Saturn.
- In Celtic countries, druids used holly and ivy — representing eternal life and fertility — and mistletoe – representing resurrection — in their mid-winter celebrations. Christianity found a firm foothold there by the 5th century and, by the 6th century, Ireland was sending Christian missionaries out to Europe. Some of the older holiday traditions, adapted to the Christian faith, went with them.
- St. Boniface, the eighth Apostle to Germany, is credited with chopping down an oak tree sacred to the druids and replacing it with a fir tree “that always lifted its branches in prayer.”
- The Vikings also used mistletoe as a symbol of resurrection because it was associated with their god, Balder, who was killed with a mistletoe spear, but was raised in three days by the tears of his mother, Frigga.
From these influences, the evergreen holly with its red berries and the mistletoe, with its white berries, as well as all evergreens, worked their colors into Christian holiday celebrations. Here we find our Christmas green and red and white. (Red is also associated with the Yule fires of the Anglo-Saxon tribes that marked the winter solstice (Jul) with huge bonfires.)
Christian missionaries were able to use the pagan symbolism of plants and other traditions, re-writing them if you will, to teach lessons about Christ, such as the eternal nature of God’s love and salvation in the nature of evergreen trees. The holly was quickly tied to Christ’s crown of thorns — with its sharp leaves and red berries symbolizing Christ’s sufferings. (It’s much the same way with St. Patrick and the shamrock story.)
Even the feast day of Dec. 25 comes to us from the Roman celebration of the birth of the warrior god, Mithra. This midwinter feast, called the Natialis Invictus (the birth of the unconquered) or Sol Invictus (the unconquered sun), lent itself readily to the teachings of Christ as the unconquered Son of God.
“The Catholic Encyclopedia” cites St. John Chrysostom with noting parallels between the Mithra feast and the birth of our Lord: “They call it the ‘Birthday of the Unconquered.’ Who indeed is so unconquered as Our Lord . . .? Or, if they say that it is the birthday of the sun, He is the Sun of Justice.”
So the colors of red and green, used to represent the sun, the blood of sacrifice and war, and the fertility of nature and the eternity of evergreens in winter, became tied to teachings of the church. Building on things that people knew from the past, Christian teachers showed how God revealed himself in present times, and for all time, through Christ.
The late Jesuit theologian Fr. John Hardon called this part of the church’s adaptability: “(The church) appropriates to herself and integrates with God’s revelation whatever valid progress is made by human science and knowledge; she adapts her divinely revealed wisdom to the varied and changing needs of her faithful …”
However, as popular as red and green are for Christmas, they are not the church’s colors of this season. Liturgical vestments and decorations for the Christmas season are white, with gold and silver often added in. These are colors that symbolize Christ’s resurrection and his glory — we can see this in the Gospel story of the Transfiguration when Jesus’ garments became “dazzling white.”
In fact, for the first 1,000 years of the church, white was the only color used at Mass and any other liturgical celebrations. It is still the color of the alb, the vestment which all Christians have the right to wear as a symbol of their baptism.
White represents Christ, the light of the world. And he is coming at Christmas — and all through the year.
So deck those halls.
Sources: The Catholic Encyclopedia; “Cultural Anthropology”; “Catholic Faith;” the Scottish and Irish Society of the Black Hills; The Church Visible; the U.S. Bishops Committee on Divine Worship; General Instruction of the Roman Missal; Principles of Liturgy