Christmas symbols are in the eye of the beholder | National Catholic Reporter

Christmas symbols are in the eye of the beholder | National Catholic Reporter.

When is a candy cane not just a candy cane?

For some people, its red and white stripes might signify the sacrifice and purity of Jesus, or maybe just a 19th-century candy-maker’s twist intended to dazzle his grandchildren. Both stories are alive and well on the Internet.

The above article in the National Catholic Reporter is a good follow-up to yesterday`s blog post on the christmas wars. It discusses how Christian meanings have been given to many of our Christmas symbols. I`ve read these descriptions before. On the one hand, it`s rather nice to give a religious interpretation to seemingly secular symbols. On the other hand, when does it just become a stretch of the imagination? Is it necessary to Christianize symbols before we can enjoy them? Perhaps sharing `secular` traditions and symbols can be seen as promoting a common ground with friends who don`t celebrate a religious Christmas; unifying us rather than dividing.

I confess to chuckling over the deeper meaning of gingerbread men (people!).

The Confraternity of Penitents, a private Roman Catholic group centered in Middletown, R.I., might disagree. Their website offers “the Christian meaning” behind 44 common Christmas symbols. Gingerbread men, according to the site, are like human beings; they do not create themselves but are created.

“Spices, reminiscent of those mentioned in the Old Testament, make the gingerbread man the color of earth (Adam was created from the dust of the earth),” the site continues. “Like us, gingerbread people are not immortal. They are destined to be eaten and thus to unite with their creators.”

REALLY??? (add the voices of SNL`s Amy Poehler and Seth Myers!)  This is reminiscent of a first year English student`s clumsy attempts at poetry interpretation. How can I enjoy my favorite cookies with images of my mortality dancing in my head? Okay, the movie Shrek offers a similar message and fate for our poor gingerbread man. But, at least it`s funny!

Sharon Sherman, a professor of folklore at the University of Oregon, sums it up nicely,

“What’s important in most people’s minds is how a given symbol or tradition is explained within his or her own family,” whether it’s their biological family or a more intentional grouping. It’s family that pulls us all “home” for Christmas, she added, across the miles or in our hearts. And Christmas, whether one assigns it religious significance or not, is, after all, all about traditions, she said.

“Whether we’re spiritual or not,” she said, “traditions hold us together.”

2 thoughts on “Christmas symbols are in the eye of the beholder | National Catholic Reporter

  1. Oh please…does it all really matter? I need my friends and family to share with me what is in their hearts. May I offer a cup of tea, some wine or a beer, a traditional snack and a welcoming hug to those who cross my doorstep and me stepping onto their welcome mat. I want to sit and listen to stories of long ago, present day joys and a ton of “remember whens”…this is where I find God, the Incarnate One.

  2. I love what Sharon Sherman said about symbols. I came from a family that had few, if any, symbols and traditions. So when I married I began to build traditions filled with symbols that now have meaning for my adult children (one assigns religious significance to them, the other does not). As Sharon states these things bring them “home” within themselves and also keep us connected as family because of our collective memory. At a very deep and mysterious level I sense these symbols connect us to that to our incessant longing for Home.
    We come from a religious tradition reach in symbols: the cross, water, bread and wine, incense, oil, the book, the touch of hands. In the work I do with male spirituality symbols are essential, words only will not cut it with men. As in a fox hole, put men side by side, or shoulder to shoulder, and stop talking, then any symbolization can have profound meaning for them.

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