Tuesday, December 1
Chrismons, Symbols of Christian Faith
Chrismons are Christmas decorations featuring various symbols of the Christian faith. They are created only in white and gold, the colors that symbolize Jesus Christ’s purity and majesty. Chrismons are placed on evergreen trees, which are symbols of eternal life. In the last half of the twentieth century, the making of Chrismons to dress a tree in the sanctuary or worship space became a tradition observed by many Christian church congregations.
Chrismons were first created by Frances Kipps Spencer in 1957. She derived the term Chrismon from the first five letters of the word Christ combined with the first three letters of the word monogram. Ms. Spencer was a member of The Lutheran Church of the Ascension in Danville, Virginia; and the church now holds a copyright on the term Chrismon. In fact, Chrismons are never to be sold for profit.
Here is an explanation of some Christian symbols that are commonly re-created in Chrismons. The Chi Rho is a symbol created from the first two Greek letters in the word Christo. In Greek, chi, X = ch and rho, P = r. The six-pointed Star of David symbolizes six divine characteristics of God: love, mercy, wisdom, majesty, power, and justice. The two triangles represent the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The four-pointed Star of Bethlehem, or Natal Star, is a symbol of the birth of Jesus Christ. It combines the shape of the star that illuminated the sky over Bethlehem when Jesus was born with the shape of the cross, the symbol of salvation. The dove is a symbol of the Holy Spirit, as evidenced in the story of the descent of the Holy Spirit on Jesus at the time of his baptism. In the depiction of the dove that is commonly replicated in Chrismons, there is a nimbus, composed of three-pointed rays, around the head of the dove. This symbolizes the Trinity. The fish is a symbol believed to have been used by early Christians. Taking the initial letters of the phrase Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior; early Christians derived the Greek word for fish: ICHTHUS. Since Jesus’ life and ministry is associated with fishing through the story from the Gospel of Mark in which Jesus told Simon and Andrew that he would make them “fishers of men,” the symbol seems even more fitting as one for the Christian faith. These are explanations of only five of the Christian symbols used in the making of Chrismons. There are many more, and a plethora of information is available in books and on web sites.
Some questions arise when considering Christian symbology. How and why are symbols useful for Christians? Why is it that certain symbols evolve to have wide-spread and long-lasting meaning for people all over the world? What are the personal meanings attached to symbols by individual people? Here are some personal reflections on those questions.
When I think of symbols, I think of logos. In our contemporary, commercial world, certain logos give us immediate and familiar recognition of products. Specialists in marketing and advertising have for many years been aware of the conventional wisdom that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” As consumers, we recognize logos such as the curvy red and white sign of Coca-Cola or the stylized check-mark of Nike shoes. Without taking the time to investigate or ruminate about a choice, we reach instinctively for the logo that represents a product we consider to be of good quality. A well-crafted logo may impart to customers a wealth of information that would be much more time-consuming to convey in words.
Christian symbols serve as logos for our faith. On a deeper level, the term logos comes from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus (535-475 B.C.) who used the term to signify both the source of the cosmos and the power that orders the cosmos on a continuing basis. Christian writers identified Jesus as the incarnation of logos, revealing the creative and continually renewing power of God by bringing the divine plan of salvation to humankind. Therefore one might say that God, revealed in Jesus, IS logos.
On a personal note, I was struck recently by a peculiar coincidence. As stated previously, I discovered that Frances Spencer first made Chrismons to decorate the Christmas tree at Ascension Church in Danville. Since Danville is only 70 miles south of Lynchburg (where I lived from 1972 until 1997) I am quite familiar with that small city in south-central Virginia. As a newcomer to Savannah, I was visiting Savannah’s Lutheran Church of the Ascension for the first time, there for rehearsal of a choral group in which I sing; the church organist took me on a tour of the gracious old building and magnificent sanctuary. What a coincidence to be in contact with two Lutheran churches “of the Ascension” in such a short time. Yet it is not really a coincidence at all. When we walk in the Christian faith, we are always at home. We find friends, brothers, and sisters wherever we go. We are never alone, and we are never strangers. The symbols of Christianity, like logos of our faith, remind us of these truths. When we see these symbols in Chrismons on the tree, we are united in wonder, thanksgiving, and praise.
– Carol Benton