Take on Nature: Symbols of hope at Christmas

The Advent wreath reminds us of the Christian message of hope and the natural world's new beginnings and rebirth as the year turns
Stephen Colton

WINTER finally bared its teeth in recent days as Arctic air delivered sub-zero temperatures across the country. Although accompanied by bright skies the sunlit days were short, with hours of darkness still dominant.

During these bleakest of days, when natural light is scarce, it can be difficult to find a sense of hope, hence the long-held tradition of adorning trees with festive lights, illuminating towns and houses for the celebration of Christmas.

Candles, the original light sources, symbolised Christ being 'the light of the world' and their presence with other seasonal symbols help remind us of the Christian message of hope and the natural world's new beginnings and rebirth as the year turns.

Throughout the Christian world, the Advent season is well under way, a time of preparation for the birth of Jesus. The four-week period will end on Christmas Eve and during these weeks in Churches, candles have been lit on the Advent wreath lighting the way for the coming of the infant Jesus.

The centuries old tradition of lighting up a wreath in winter is probably of pagan origin but by the Middle Ages, Christians began using the wreath as part of their spiritual planning for Christmas.

The circular shape of the wreath represents God's everlasting love while the evergreen leaves of pine, fir, holly, and laurel also signify the enduring, cyclical, and continuous manner of nature's awakening and renewal.

Another notable symbol used to build anticipation during this season is the Jesse Tree, spoken of in the book of Isaiah: "There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots."

This shoot from Jesse, father of King David, would grow, develop branches, and create an extensive family tree of ancestors, strong men and women, all the way to the birth of Jesus.

The earliest of these trees were in art forms of carvings or designs on church windows, but today real trees are frequently used, with pictorial symbols hung up to recreate the family tree of Jesus.

Images of events and famous figures from the Bible tracing Jesus' family all the way back to David are chosen to chronicle the story leading to his birth.

As well as characters, animals and earthly things are part of the narrative, drawing on the first line from Genesis: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth." Adam and Eve are there along with graphics of the apple tree, its fruit, and the serpent.

Noah's Ark of animals, Moses with the burning bush and Ruth with her sheaf of corn are all prominent images, as is John the Baptist with his scallop containing the water to baptise Jesus.

As we move through Advent the Jesse tree's bare branches are filled with more colourful pictures telling the time-honoured family story of Christmas.

Like Jesse's stump, the roots of winter's dormant trees will soon stir again to nourish the new shoots of next spring, when leaves will grow again.

As with the never-ending ring-shaped Advent wreath of evergreen leaves, the cycle of nature will carry on as increasing light in the weeks ahead will prompt birds to sing, snowdrops to peep and living things to renew.

Frogs will spawn, salmon will leap and insects will take to the wing again. Wild geese will fly off to their northern haunts and nature will continue its work, bringing hope through the darkness, much like a new-born baby did in a simple stable all those years ago, lying in the feeding trough of animals which kept him company.

Nollaig Shona daoibh go léir.