The 12 Posts of Christmas, Day 5: Symbols of the Season II

Symbols make life richer, and as I previously mentioned, stories take on a deeper meaning with well-chosen symbols. (If you like exploring symbols in stories, you’ll love my course coming this spring.) While I’ve only scratched the surface concerning this topic, it’s been fun to learn the history of some of the Christmas symbols we hold dear, and, well, have strong opinions about. Read on and you’ll see what I mean.

The Christmas Tree. While the practice of bringing greenery indoors is an ancient one, the modern Christmas tree can be traced back to the eighth century and a man by the name of St. Boniface who was converting the Germanic tribes to Christianity. The tribes worshipped and decorated oak trees for the winter solstice, and it was Boniface who chose to chop down one particular enormous oak tree, the center of their worship. In the place where that oak tree had been, a fir tree grew, which was offered as a symbol of Christianity, and the new converts began decorating the evergreens. 

Prince Albert, who was German, introduced the Christmas tree to England after his marriage to Queen Victoria in 1840, and it became all the rage in London. Back then, it was common to put burning candles on the trees. (Can you say fire marshal?) German immigrants settling in Pennsylvania brought the tradition of the Christmas tree to America.  

Poinsettia. Called The Flower of the Holy Night (Flores de Noche Buena), the plant is found growing naturally in Mexico for only a short time during the Advent season. The red bracts of the flower represent the Star of Bethlehem which led the wise men to the Christ Child, and seventeenth-century Franciscan priests in Mexico placed the flowers around the manger in their Nativity celebrations.

In 1828 Dr. Joel Poinsett, the American ambassador to Mexico, introduced the plant to America after cultivating it in greenhouses. Currently poinsettias make up 88 percent of Christmas plant sales. 

Fruitcake. The cake everyone loves–or loves to hate! Who knows when someone came up with the idea of combining fruit, honey, nuts, and alcohol into an edible gift, but records dating back to before Jesus’ birth reveal a Roman concoction of barley, pomegranate seeds, nuts, and raisins. In the Middle Ages, as dried fruit became more available, Western Europe embraced the fruited bread. The ingredients greatly reduced spoilage, particularly as folks traveled long distances with the dense cake.

The fruitcake we know today finds its origin in English plum cake recipes. The tradition of reserving fruitcake for special occasions gained in popularity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries due to the costly ingredients.

Perhaps it was the “make in advance” quality that resulted in fruitcake as a food to serve for Christmas. Months and months in advance in some cases. Or maybe it was the convenience of mail order fruitcakes, dating back to 1913 and still going strong today. Whichever side you come down on concerning this controversial subject, fruitcakes are likely here to stay. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to wrap the fruitcake I bought for my dad. I plan to eat a little slice sometime over the Christmas holiday.

Yep, I’m one of those people.  


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