When Christians prepare celebrate Christmas, we fill our sanctuaries with beautiful decorations. Red and green banners hang from the walls next to evergreen wreaths. Poinsettias, scattered throughout, create a festive atmosphere. Many congregations also decorate Christmas trees with symbolic ornaments, each one representing our Savior and the gifts he gives us. These ornaments, called Chrismons, help point worshippers to Christ.
The Chrismon tree does not have a long tradition in the Christian church. It starts with the Christmas tree, of course, which does have a long history in the church While we cannot trace the exact time and place where Christians first took evergreen trees into their homes to celebrate the birth of Christ, we do know that this practice began in northern Europe.
There are as many origin stories for the Christmas tree as there are historians who write about it. We do, however, know that the first recorded Christmas tree came from Latvia in 1510 and Strasbourg in 1521. From there, the tradition spread throughout northern Europe. Eventually, Christmas trees became more elaborate. People decorated them with candles, much like our Christmas lights.
The modern Chrismon ornament came from Ascension Lutheran Church in Virginia. A member of the church, Frances Kipps Spencer, designed and made Christmas ornaments out of traditional symbols for Christ. She designed handmade ornaments of white and gold, because she wanted a Christmas tree that would point to our savior.Since she that day, the tradition of a Chrismon tree has spread through Lutheran churches into other denominations across America.
As far as I can tell, Chrismons are not limited to a specific kind of symbol, though we see some more than others. Each one teaches us something about our God and savior. Here are some of the more common Chrismons and what they mean. You can find examples of patterns and photos online. The pictures below aren't Chrismons, but they are examples of the symbols included in Chrismon trees.
IHS, or sometimes IHC, comes from the first three letters of Jesus’ name in Greek. The scribes who copied the New Testament quickly developed a way to abbreviate and highlight the names of God throughout the text. Frequently, they would shorten the word and draw a line over it. This served to draw your attention to God’s name, and it also saved space on expensive parchment.
Since then, many people have reinterpreted the symbol into an acronym. Some claim that it stands for Iesus Hominum Salvator , or “Jesus the savior of man.” Some believe that it was used by Constantine when he believed that God called him to conquer under the sign of the cross, In Hoc Signo or “in this sign.”
Chi Rho is another sign for Christ developed by the early New Testament copyists. Formed from the first two letters of the word Christ in Greek, they would write a Chi Rho with a line above it in every place where they copied the word. We still use the symbol today to remind us that Jesus is the Christ, the anointed savior sent by God.
This symbol is a variation on the Chi Rho. You will often find the Chi Rho in the center of a circle that wraps around the symbol. Eventually this symbol changed into a cross at the center of a circle, but it still derives from this symbol for Christ. The circle symbolizes eternity, adding extra meaning to the title of Christ.
The Star of David reminds us that Jesus was the fulfillment of the Davidic covenant. God came to David and promised that his son would reign on the throne of Israel forever. That son would protect God’s people from their enemies and rule with justice and righteousness. When the angel came to Mary, he told her that her son would be given the throne of his father, David. The Star of David chrismon emphasizes the connection between Israel’s hope in the Davidic covenant and our hope in Jesus.
In 1 Peter 3:20-21, the apostle describes God’s purpose with Noah and the flood. He reminds his readers that God saved eight people on the ark, and he connects the flood that cleansed the earth to the flood of baptism that cleanses us from sin. The number eight, then, refers to baptismal regeneration and cleansing by water. For this reason, many baptismal fonts have eight sides, harkening to Peter’s connection between the flood and baptism. The eight-pointed star points us to baptism and the regeneration we receive from God.
The Star of Bethlehem comes straight from traditional imagery in the nativity story. You have probably seen this star in nativity scenes, children’s books, or other Christmas art. Through it, we remember the wise men, who visited Jesus from Persia. They brought him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
The cross and crown points us to Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Jesus’ first coming challenged everyone’s expectations for God’s savior. He was not powerful in a traditional sense. He did not lead armies. He was not glorious. Instead, he suffered, died, and was buried. The cross and crown reminds us that our King’s first throne was the instrument of his death. He was lifted up and crowned with thorns to save us.
The fish is one of the earliest Christian symbols. Ιχθυς is the Greek word for fish, which forms an acronym in Greek. Translated, it reads, “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” The first Christians used this symbol to identify other believers in Christ. Traditional stories tell us that it was especially useful as code during times of persecution.
People use many other symbols for Chrismons, including a dove, the lamb, alpha and omega, the pelican, the ship, and several others. You can read about more symbols here, on our blog.
Sometimes the Christmas message gets crowded by family celebrations, traditions, and our incredibly busy schedules. The season can draw our attention away from Christ’s birth and the celebration of his incarnation. These symbols, hung on a Christmas tree, can help remind us of our faith and of our savior. Try making your own Chrismon tree, or Jesse tree, to help your family focus on Jesus.
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