The Colors and Symbols of Christmas

purple advent candlesThe Colors of Advent
Much as we use seasonal color in our homes, throughout the church year the colors of the paraments (the hangings on the pulpit) and the banners change to reflect the spiritual season in which we find ourselves. The season of Advent developed as a counterpart to Lent – a season of solemn preparation for the Joy that is to come.  Purple is the liturgical color for times of preparation, reflection and sacrifice.  Here at UCF we use purple in Advent to remind us that we will all be called to be innkeepers or the bearers of new life.  Purple reminds us to use this time to make space for what is to come, and for which now there is no room.

Later in the life of the Church, the color of Advent became blue to reflect the color of royalty, and kingship. Before synthetic dyes, purple and blue were extremely rare and difficult colors to make and so were reserved for special occasions and the wealthy or royal.  We use blue in this season to remind ourselves that the reign of Christ has already begun.  We have many reasons for celebration even before the Christ-child is born again.

evergreen Christmas wreathEvergreen Boughs and Wreaths
Most ancient peoples, especially in the northern hemisphere, found ways to pray for the return of life and light as an antidote to the anxiety and fears brought about by darkened skies and a cold earth.  This included bringing indoors evergreen plants which defied the winter’s efforts to bring paint the landscape with bare branches, dead leaves and frozen fields.

The early church found it could not persuade people away from these practice (or their fears) which were universal.  Instead, in its wisdom, the church found ways to incorporate those celebrations into its life by interpreting and reshaping them according to the story of our faith.

Branches and garlands of evergreen remind us that with God in Christ we are given the power to stand in defiance of the cold and to claim life even in the face of death and darkness.  Cut branches remind us of our mortality.  When evergreens are woven into a wreath, they are a symbol of everlasting life.

christmas tree 2The Christmas Tree  This decorated fir tree came in to our celebrations from medieval German Paradise Plays, which were held outdoors and portrayed the creation story.  Early “Trees of Life” were decorated with apples.   In England, branches or whole trees were brought indoors and forced to bloom.  As the tradition evolved, fir trees were used to embrace life in the midst of winter.  Legend has it, that Martin Luther began the tradition of lighting trees, reflecting the starry skies.

candle in church windowA Vigil of Hope   Almost all people have developed practices of placing lights in windows as messages, as warnings, as signs of welcome, or light in the darkness.  A small flame or bulb has great power to lighten our spirits, relieve our fears, and to bring hope in darkness.  In some traditions, the candles remain in the windows until Epiphany, in others until the first day of Lent. We continue the practice of placing candles in the windows as a sign of our hope in Christ, our welcome to strangers, and our willingness to find room for all life’s weary travelers.
advent wreath candles The Advent Wreath   The ring or wheel of the Advent wreath of evergreens decorated with candles symbolizes the eternal cycle of the seasons while the evergreens and lighted candles signified the persistence of life in the midst of winter.  There are four colored candles around the ring. (Various traditions use different colors —  purple, blue, red, or three purple and a pink.  All colors are good for prayer, reflection and wisdom.)

Lighting an additional candle each week, we pay attention to what is happening and to the promise that there is more to come. We continue to use wax candles in the wreath to provide a visual reminder of the progression of the season and the dwindling days until the Christ-child comes again.  The center candle is traditionally white, and here we light it on Christmas Eve.

poinsettiaPoinsettias   This bright tropical plant was introduced to the United States in 1828, by then US Ambassador to Mexico, Dr. Joel Robert Poinset.  Our neighbors to the south call it the “Flower of the Holy Night”, its brachts forming a many pointed start reminding us of The Star of Bethlehem.

chrismon on tree  Chrismons
Chrismons are similar to Christograms, Christian symbols representing Jesus Christ, which have been used since the days of early Christianity.  The name “Chrismon” is a combination of “Christ” and “monogram.”  It was invented (and copyrighted) by Frances Kipps Spencer in 1957 at the Ascension Lutheran Church in Danville, Virginia.  These decorations with Christ symbols are specifically for Christmas as a way of remembering that Christmas is the celebration of Jesus’ birthday.  They are often used on Christmas trees.  While looking at the decorations, one can tell the story of Christianity.  Chrismons are traditionally white (symbolizing purity and perfection) and gold (for Jesus’ majesty and glory).  They can be made out of any material.

chrismonschrismons 2tree with chrismons