Symbols of the Savior at Christmas
by W. Jeffrey Marsh
At this time of year are we part of the “inn” crowd or the “stable” few?
“Bah. Humbug!” Ebenezer Scrooge’s dour attitude about Christmas begins to settle in on many people’s hearts when they see Christmas decorations going up as early as Halloween. Feelings of dread often accompany the “making of lists, and checking them twice” in order to make certain nothing is left undone for Christmas. So many obligations! So much to do! And so much of it has become so commercialized! How is it possible to live in “tinsel town” and feel the real Spirit of Christmas?
Many of these delightful, and what some would call “dreadful,” Christmas customs have been handed down for generations. And while it is true that they have the ability to distract us from the things that really matter most, if we will learn to look beyond the symbols – focusing more on what the symbols represent than on the cultural trappings they tend to portray – we may be surprised to find that the vast majority of our holiday rituals truly do, or at least can, remind us of the Savior.
For example, the practice of cutting down an evergreen tree and decorating it is an ancient custom fraught with meaning. In the Prophet Jeremiah’s (and Lehi’s) day, some decorating of trees was viewed as a form of idol worship: “For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not. They are upright as the palm tree, but speak not: they must needs be borne, because they cannot go. Be not afraid of them; for they cannot do evil, neither also is it in them to do good….But the Lord is the true God, he is the living God, and an everlasting king.” (Jeremiah 10:3-5, 10.)
There may be some in today’s world to whom decorating a Christmas tree is similarly viewed as a pagan, or worldly, ritual. But for those in our day who learn to see beyond the symbols – and focus on what Elder John A. Widtsoe referred to as “the mighty realities for which the symbols stand” – even the tradition of decorating a Christmas tree can take on new life and have deepened meaning. The evergreen color of the tree, still vibrant in the dead of winter, can symbolize the eternal life Jesus Christ provides which enables us to overcome death. The green needles on each branch pointing heavenward serve to remind us that it is not who comes down the chimney that matters, but Who came down from heaven. Jesus Christ is the divinely appointed Savior and Redeemer, and “there is no other name given whereby salvation cometh” (Mosiah 5:8; see also 3:17).
Even the lights on the tree, when seen with greater vision, become tiny, shining reminders of the declarations in the scriptures that Jesus Christ “is the light and the life of the world; yea a light that is endless, that can never be darkened; yea, and also a life which is endless, that there can be no more death” (Mosiah 16:9). They remind us that His life is “the light of men” (John 2:4); and of His declaration: “I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life” (John 8:12). Many other customs and holiday habits we will participate in during the next few weeks, if viewed from a spiritual perspective, can actually help us focus more on the significance of the Savior’s birth, life, ministry, and redeeming sacrifice.
If we have eyes to see, almost all things during the Christmas season bear witness of Christ in some way or another. Nephi insightfully commented, “Behold, my soul delighteth in proving unto my people the truth of the coming of Christ;…and all things which have been given of God from the beginning of the world, unto man, are the typifying of him” (2 Nephi 11:4). Heavenly Father’s reminder to Moses is also worthy of note: “This is the plan of salvation unto all men, through the blood of mine Only Begotten, who shall come in the meridian of time. And behold, all things have their likeness, and all things are created and made to bear record of me, both things which are temporal, and things which are spiritual; things which are in the heavens above, and things which are on the earth, and things which are in the earth, and things which are under the earth, both above and beneath: all things bear record of me.” (Moses 6:62-63.)
Here is a sampling of traditions that can either be “holiday trappings” or can become “types of Christ” for those who have eyes to see: Beautifully decorated centerpieces can remind us that Christ is the true centerpiece of Christmas. The color red, so prominent everywhere at this season, can remind us of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Only because we understand what happened in Gethsemane does what happened in Bethlehem even matter. Without Gethsemane, the birth of the Babe in Bethlehem would have been just another birth, without eternal significance. Elder Mark E. Petersen observed, “Without the Restoration, the true meaning of Christ’s birth would still be lost to men; it would still be a mystery to the groping world” (in a Christmas message delivered at the annual Church Office Building Christmas party, 1960, p. 3.) The many kind deeds done for others, and the random acts of generosity and love, remind us of the Savior’s words, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40).
The Christmas lights hanging on homes and clinging to city street lights can help us recall the time of the Savior’s birth when great lights were shown in the heavens. Looking at them, we can be reminded of the wondrous light in ancient America, the night the Savior was born, when there was a day and a night and a day with no darkness. As the Light of the world was born here on earth, darkness was banished as a sign of his birth (see Helaman 14:1-9). The star on top of the Christmas tree can remind us of the time when the new star appeared in the heavens. In the holy land, this star led wise men to the Christ child. In ancient America, the star appeared right on time and in the right place as a prophesied sign of His birth. Jesus is called the “Savior” and the “Prince of Life,” and the lives of those who were facing death for their belief in Him were saved by the appearance of the new star (see 3 Nephi 1). Perhaps the star atop the tree can remind us that we, too, can show up right on time in the lives of others to render timely assistance.
Elder Hugh B. Brown taught that selfless service lies at the heart of the true Christmas experience: “The compass of the spirit of Christmas points constantly toward others, never toward ourselves…” (Hugh B. Brown, The Improvement Era, December 1970, p. 144). The color green can remind us of the modern revelation which teaches us that Christ was not born in December, but in the Springtime of the year (see D&C 20:1). We call Christ “the Life,” and he was born in Springtime when life is renewed. The crowded stores and malls can remind us that Bethlehem, too, was crowded. There was no room for Him in any of the inns (see JST Luke 2:7). We should remember to leave room for Him in our “in”-tellects, especially at this time of year. “During the hurry of the festive occasion of this Christmas season, find time to turn your heart to God” (Howard W. Hunter, “The Real Christmas,” in Speeches of the Year [Provo: Brigham Young University, Press, 1973], p. 69).
When we see simple decorations, like candy canes, we can be reminded of the Shepherd’s crook. The Savior was foreordained to be the sacrificial lamb. Like lambs, He was born in a stable and laid in a manger. He taught that whosoever would humble himself would be exalted, and He came into the world in the humblest of circumstances. The night He was born, only the humblest of people, shepherds, gathered around the Lamb of God. We could ask ourselves at this time of year, are we part of the “inn” crowd, or among the “stable” few? The special Christmas carols, sung only at Christmastime, remind us of the multitude of the heavenly host who sang “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” (Luke 2:14). President David O. McKay observed that this peace only comes to those choose to obey the Gospel of Jesus Christ (in Conference Report, Apr 1963). When we see portrayals of the wise men, we are reminded that “wise” men and women still seek Him, and seek to become like Him. Moroni wrote, “And now, I would commend you to seek this Jesus of whom the prophets and apostles have written, that the grace of God the Father, and also the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost, which beareth record of them, may be and abide in you forever.” (Ether 12:4.) Elder Mark E. Petersen urged: “For Christmas let us give ourselves the greatest of gifts – a Christlike life.” (“The Greatest of Gifts,” New Era, December 1971, p. 5).
Christmas will soon be upon us. One of the keys to surviving the holidays when gold, frankincense and myrrh go on sale, is to not let the rush of Christmas crowd out the very thing Christmas is. Even the Grinch eventually came to realize that, “Maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas means a little bit more.”
President Howard W. Hunter taught us that “The real Christmas comes to him who has taken Christ into his life as a moving, dynamic, vitalizing source. The real spirit of Christmas lies in the life and mission of the Master.” (Howard W. Hunter, “The Real Christmas,” in Speeches of the Year, 1972-73 (Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1973), p. 68).
Almost everything around us – the food, fun, shopping, colors, sights, traditions, and festivities of Christmas – can serve to remind us of Christ, our Savior, the Son of God. When we learn to see through the lens of greater faith, then it may always be said of us – as it was of Ebenezer Scrooge himself – “that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”
2001 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.