Vintage Christmas style is in these days. From old style Christmas cards to ugly Christmas sweater parties to the retro-chic look of a “winter” (or Advent) beard, this year’s festal season is in many ways a throw back to holidays past. If you want your tree to harken back to the nifty-fifties, then your best bet might be to add a gold and white Chrismon decoration.
Yeah, that’s right…a Chrismon.
What’s a Chrismon you ask?
The word Chrismon is derived from the words “Christ Monograms.” They are symbols representing the life, the ministry and the meaning of Jesus Christ. They are used to decorate Christmas trees and Christian homes during the holidays and along with being white and gold, they are often decorated with beads, ribbons and glitter.
While these golden ornaments may not be in high demand for the majority of holiday revelers this Christmas, they are still found in Methodist and Lutheran churches throughout the United States.
Chrismons take many shapes and forms. From an anchor to a pomegranate, these symbols have been used by Christians for centuries to communicate theology, designate Christian meeting places in times of persecution, and identify individuals as Christian.
The modern tradition of hanging Chrismons was started by Frances K. Spencer at Lutheran Church of the Ascension in Danville, Virginia in 1957. Since then the practice has spread across the United States.
Talking to Gretchen Roberts of the Lutheran Witness, Rev. Dr. David Eberhard, pastor of the Historic Trinity church in Detroit said, “You’ve heard a picture is worth a thousand words. Nike has a swoosh; Ford’s blue oval is instantly recognizable. Our Christian symbols tell a story and reinforce the proclaimed Word. They are a visual statement of who we are as God’s people.”
However, a lot of the meaning of these symbols has been lost in contemporary Christmas culture.
At Memorial Lutheran Church in Katy, where I worked for a few years, the congregation went through a series of Advent devotionals based on the Chrismon symbols. Accompanying the sermon series there was a daily devotional highlighting a different Chrismon each day. Asked about the devotionals and learning the meaning of the Chrismons parishioner Mary Weis said she was enjoying the devotionals.
“I sat down to read one and found myself skipping ahead” she said, “I ended up finishing the devotional in one night, it was so interesting to learn the meaning of the symbols, it gives visual reference for my faith.”
Christmas, and its seasonal siblings – Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, the Winter Solstice and even Festivus – are meaningful holidays with religious and sociological importance. Icons and signs like Chrismons add special symbolic significance to these holidays. As was reported in my previous post on secular holiday symbols, Adele Nozedar said "the use of a simple symbol...says far more than any wordy explanation ever could." She continued, "Signs and symbols, our invention of them and understanding of them, transcend the barriers of written language and are the very heart of our existence as human beings."
Symbols, like the Chrismons, help us make sense of the season, interpret our own identity, and even understand the cosmos itself.
Perhaps this year you can take a moment to learn more about Chrismons and their meaning, or even make a few of your own as a family project. Here is just a sampling of some of the Chrismons and their significance:
Bronze snake and tau – harkening back to an Old Testament story (Numbers 21:9) it points to the coming of Jesus Christ who would be “lifted up” for the life of his people (John 3:14).
Pomegranate – This Mediterranean fruit is a symbol of the church, its seeds representing the people who are full of potential to bear much fruit (Matthew 7:17-18).
Chi Rho – This is easily one of the most recognizable symbols of Christianity and is literally a “monogram of Christ.” The first two letters of the Greek word for “Messiah,” “Anointed One,” or “Christ” are chi (x) and rho(p). Put together they form this symbol of Jesus Christ. In the image above there are two additional symbols - the Alpha and Omega - signaling that Jesus Christ is the first and the last (alpha being the first letter of the Greek alphabet, omega the final), at creation and at judgment day in the Christian tradition. The "X" in X-mas is derived from the chi in chi rho. While many believe the "X" is secular, it is derived from ancient Christian symbology.