By Daniel Bobinski
With Christmas coming up I got to wondering about symbolism in Scripture for this season. To be frank, you’re not going to find Christmas specifics in Scripture. We’re told the whole concept of celebrating Christ’s birth began sometime in the 4th century, and it took another 500 years until the church celebrated a specific liturgy for it, with December 25 eventually selected as the special day.
Give pause and think about that. Our U.S. Constitution is a mere 236 years old, and we often think of that as happening a long time ago! In other words, Christians weren’t exactly in a hurry to come up with a celebration for Christ’s birth. The reason? It was his death on the cross that mattered most!
But humans have a habit of creating traditions, and so they did.
Of course, the legend of St. Nicholas is now part and parcel with the Christmas holiday. Interestingly, the celebration of this saint’s altruism for those in need parallels the emergence of Christmas celebrations.
Although much of his history is unconfirmed, we’re told the man who became St. Nicholas lived in the 4th century. He is believed to have been an altruistic bishop in Asia Minor, and over the centuries, a “Feast of St. Nicholas” was held annually on December 6 in his honor. To mark the importance of being a blessing to others, gifts were given or exchanged the night before. That tradition was well established in many European countries by the 12th century.
Eventually, because St. Nicholas’ Day and the Christmas celebration were so close together, those traditions became combined.
Of course, many Christians today do not celebrate Christmas, and I’m not going to take sides. But for those who do, I think we benefit by recognizing the symbolism that exists among the various traditions.
For example, the candy cane is assigned much symbology. Historians will differ in their opinions on this, but we’re told that the candy cane originated in Germany in the 1600’s, with bent candy sticks representing shepherds’ hooks. The white stripe is associated with purity and represents the sinless nature of Jesus. The red stripe is associated with Christ’s shed blood. And the stripes overall are said to represent the stripes that Jesus suffered as He was being whipped prior to His crucifixion.
Christmas bells are another common decoration we see, and we’re told that they symbolize the ringing in of the good news of the gospel.
Another Christmas tradition is the song, “The 12 Days of Christmas.” Why 12 days? That’s the number of days between the traditional day of Christ’s birth (December 25) and Three Kings Day (January 6), also known as Epiphany.
We’re told the 12 days were used to teach children the gospel message through symbols, with each day having a Christian meaning that represents a different aspect of the faith. Here is an analysis of each symbol:
- The partridge in a pear tree represents Jesus Christ, who sacrificed Himself for our salvation. The pear tree symbolizes the cross, and the partridge in the tree represents Christ’s willingness to die for us.
- The two turtle doves represent the Old and New Testaments, which provide a foundation for understanding our Christian faith. The doves also symbolize peace and love, which are central to the message of Christ.
- The three French hens represent Faith, Hope, and Charity, which are the three Christian virtues listed by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 12 and 13. These virtues are key to living a Christian life and are abundant in Christ’s teachings.
- The four calling birds represent the four Gospels, which tell the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. The Gospels are the primary source of Christian doctrine and are essential to understanding the faith.
- The five golden rings represent the first five books of the Old Testament, also known as the Pentateuch. These books contain the history and laws of the Jewish people and form the foundation of the Christian faith.
- The six geese a-laying represent the six days of creation, as described in the book of Genesis. The geese also symbolize fertility and abundance, which are blessings from God.
- The seven swans a-swimming represent the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, which are wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. These gifts are given to believers to help them live a holy life.
- The eight maids a-milking represent the eight Beatitudes, which are the teachings of Jesus on how to live a blessed life. The Beatitudes are a guide to understanding how we can live out the faith.
- The nine ladies dancing represent the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit, which are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These fruits are the result of living a life guided by the Holy Spirit.
- The ten lords a-leaping represent the Ten Commandments, which are the foundation of Christian morality. The Commandments are a guide to living a holy life.
- The eleven pipers piping represent the eleven faithful apostles, who spread the message of Christ after His death and resurrection. The apostles served as the foundation of the Christian church and were unabashedly bold in sharing their faith.
- The twelve drummers drumming represent the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle’s Creed, which is a summary of Christian beliefs. The Apostle’s Creed serves as a guide for many in understanding the faith.
While it’s entirely possible the origin of this song had nothing to do with the symbology I just listed, “The 12 Days of Christmas” can be assigned these deep Christian meanings that help children (and adults!) learn the different aspects of our faith.
However you celebrate the holiday, may you have a joyous season as you reflect on the message of Christ in the symbols that surround us.
Note: The above information was taken from multiple sources and compiled into a single article.
Daniel Bobinski, Th.D., is an award-winning and best-selling author and a popular speaker at conferences and retreats. Reach him at [email protected] or (208) 375-7606.