It’s hard to escape the meaning of Christmas. Even when some people try to substitute “Happy Holidays” for “Merry Christmas” or “Holiday Tree” for “Christmas Tree”, we still have the symbols that decorate homes and businesses across the land. It is true that many of the symbols were pagan in origin, but over the centuries Christians have “redeemed” these symbols and attached biblical meanings to them. When you think about the symbols, the meaning behind them becomes clear.

At Christmas we have bells, trees, wreaths, ornaments, presents. You hear in Christmas carols “Ring the Bells” and “Carol of the Bells.” Why are bells a symbol of the birth of the Son of God? In the Old Testament the garment of the Jewish High Priest was adorned with little bells at the hem. Wherever he walked, people could hear his presence as he offered incense and sacrifice for his people. The Book of Hebrews tells us that Jesus is our great High Priest who offered Himself as a perfect sacrifice for His people, once and for all, and forever stands as Mediator between God and man (Hebrews 10:10-22).

The evergreen tree is obviously a reference to the cross. In 1 Peter 2:24 the apostle tells us that Christ “bore our sins in His own body on the tree…” The tree is green (in most homes), and green is symbolic of redemption, forgiveness, and everlasting life. The Bible says that through the death of Christ, redemption and new life is provided for all who trust in Jesus (2 Corinthians 5:21; Ephesians 1:7).

The wreath with its sharp pointed holly and red berries is symbolic of the crown of thorns worn by Christ during his trial and crucifixion (John 19:1-3). The first time we see thorns in the Bible is in Genesis where God says that they are indicative of the curse upon mankind for his rebellion (Genesis 3:18). Later, when Abraham is about to sacrifice the promised son Isaac, God provides a ram…caught in a thicket of thorns…as a substitute (Genesis 22:13). Much later in the Bible, we see God’s Promised Son, Jesus, wearing a crown of thorns, showing that as a sacrificial substitute He is bearing mankind’s curse. The red berries of course speak of the shed blood of Christ, and the greenery is again symbolic of the life that comes from the perfect sacrifice of Christ.

Ornaments? Presents? In the Old Testament the Jewish priests received offerings and gifts from the people. Also, in the Old Testament, after the dedication of the temple, Gentiles came from afar to visit King Solomon and bring him gifts, (1 Kings 10:10). The prophet Isaiah tells us that in the future kingdom Gentiles will bring gold and frankincense to the Messiah. In the New Testament, the Gentile wise men (the “Magi”) came to the Christ child (probably a year after His birth) and presented their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to honor their King. Today, our shiny ornaments on a tree and the presents we give all point to the gifts people brought to their King-Priest, Jesus.

The candy cane of course looks like a shepherd’s staff (or the letter “J”…for Jesus…if you turn it upside down). The red stripes represent his blood shed for the sins of the world (Isaiah 53:2-7) and the hardness of the candy refers to the fact that Christ is the Rock and the foundation of our faith (I Corinthians 3:11; 10:4).

Even “Jolly Old St. Nick” tells us something about Jesus. Santa Claus was real. The name is a corruption of the Dutch “Sinter Klaas” and refers to the fourth century Bishop Nicholas of Myra (in what is now modern day Turkey). He was a kind hearted Christian leader who helped out the poor and needy (especially children). Over the centuries he has “evolved” into the legendary/mythical figure of a jolly elf in a red suit who lives at the North Pole making toys, but the source of the legend is a real Christian who for Christ’s sake really loved and helped his neighbor.

You can miss Jesus at Christmas time if you are focused merely on temporal things. But look a little harder at the symbols and think of what they mean…and you’ll find the Jesus of history, and eternity.