Christmas Lyn

The Complete History of Chrismons

Updated July 11, 2024
Source: Wikimedia

You may have heard of Chrismons when visiting the local church or browsing the web searching for traditional Christmas decorations.

What are these white and gold ornaments hanging off a Christmas tree, and how are they different from regular ornaments?

The tradition of using Chrismons is young, counting under 100 years. It’s widely observed in the US but is relatively uncommon in other world regions.

However, the story and meaning behind these ornaments are profound and have deep religious roots.

Each of the ornaments featured on Chrismons has a profound significance. These symbols were used for centuries, with the oldest one dating back to the second century AD.

Some of them symbolize Christ himself, others his disciples, mother, and other people involved in his story.

Some Chrismon symbols represent human attitude towards Christ and Christmas in particular. They are meant to showcase our faith, humility, and the joy arising from Christ’s birth.

Chrismons are typically used in churches, but this doesn’t mean you can’t decorate your own Christmas tree with these ornaments. It’s a great way to remind yourself and others of the real meaning of Christmas.

What Are Chrismons?

Chrismons are Christmas decorations featuring Christian symbol ornaments that remind people of the holiday’s true meaning. The word Chrismon is derived from words “Christ” and “monogram,” meaning “symbols of Christ.”

These decorations can take many forms. Chrismons can be made from wood or glass, be embroidered, beaded, engraved, or painted. Often, they’re made from paper. Chrismons don’t have to be fancy; they have a different purpose.

Traditionally, Chrismons are made in gold and white. Sometimes, you can come across colored Chrismons.

However, that’s considered wrong, as Chrismons are meant to tell us Christ’s story and have a religious rather than decorative significance.

Only a few Chrismons, such as The Pelican in Her Piety, can have a pop of color. Furthermore, the color selection is limited, as each one has a specific meaning.

For instance, red on the pelican Chrismon symbolizes the sacrifice these birds make picking their own breast to feed their children when no food is available.

Chrismon Patterns

There’s a limited list of Chrismon symbols, and each of the symbols has a special meaning. Perhaps, the most common Chrismon pattern is The Cross, representing the cross Jesus died on for our sins.

Apart from an ordinary cross, Chrismons often feature The Latin Cross with three steps at its base, symbolizing hope, faith, and love.

In Ireland, Chrismons are commonly engraved with The Irish or Celtic Cross. Orthodox Christians use The Eastern Cross Chrismons instead of the ordinary cross.

The Triumphant Cross has a circle at its base. The circle represents the earth, and the symbol shows that Jesus is triumphant over everything in this world.

Sometimes, you can encounter Chrismons featuring a cross with “JHS” letters in the middle. These letters are an abbreviation of the phrase “Jesus Hominum Salvator,” translating as “Jesus, Savior of Men.”

Chrismons with crosses don’t end here – The Jerusalem Cross stands for the cross worn by crusaders on their way to Jerusalem.

Some also believe it represents the four gospels of the Bible. Lastly, The Upsilon Cross represents the choice between good and evil that each of us faces. The pattern resembles the Greek letter “Y.”

Apart from crosses, Chrismons also feature other ornaments with Biblical meanings. So, the anchor pattern showcases that Jesus is the anchor of the Christian faith.

The fish Chrismon represents Jesus’ disciples, some of whom were fishermen. The Greek word for fish, “ichthus,” can also be an abbreviation of Jesus (I), Christ (X), God (Q), Son (Y), Savior (S).

The Alpha and Omega Chrismons symbolize that Jesus is the beginning and end of everything, as these are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet.

Have you ever wondered why Christmas is sometimes called Xmas?

The word originated from the Greek alphabet, where “X” is the first letter of “Χριστός,” or Christ in English. “X” in Greek is called “chi,” and Chi-Rho is one of the most common Chrismons. “Rho” is the second letter of the word “Χριστός.”

Stars are also common in Chrismon patterns, and it’s no wonder.

Christians decorate their homes with The Star of David as a symbol of Jesus’ Jewish origin, The Nativity Star as the symbol of the Star of Bethlehem, and An Eight-Pointed Star symbolizing Christ’s baptism.

Shell is another symbol of baptism often seen on Chrismons.

The crown ornament on Chrismons shows that Jesus is the King of Kings. A shepherd’s crook ornament reminds us that shepherds were the first to discover infant Jesus. Chrismons with a dove ornament pay tribute to the Holy Spirit.

A cup ornament on Chrismons is called The Cup of Chalice and represents the Mass, Eucharist, or Communion. Other typical Chrismon decorations include a manger, lamb, candle, and hands in prayer – their meanings are rather obvious.

Chrismon Origin

Despite a beautiful symbolism, Chrismons are a modern invention. Furthermore, they’re one of a few Christmas traditions originating in the US. They were introduced by Frances Kipps Spencer of Ascension Lutheran Church in Danville, Virginia, in 1957.

Of course, the symbols featured on Chrismons existed centuries before that. For instance, the Chi-Rho symbol was used by the Roman Emperor Constantine I back in the fourth century AD.

The Celtic Cross has been around since the Middle Ages. The oldest Christian symbol is the fish. The earliest historical records date to the second century AD.

Still, Spenser came up with an idea to turn existing symbols into Christmas tree decorations. She thought that traditional, colorful baubles and bows weren’t appropriate and didn’t show the true meaning of Christmas.

Spenser wanted to give meaning to Christmas tree decorations. So, she chose traditional Christian ornaments in white and gold colors to symbolize purity and faith.

Over time, the newly emerged tradition has spread across the US. Today, churches in many states decorate their Christmas trees with Christian ornaments rather than regular figurines.

However, the custom didn’t yet gain popularity in Europe and Eastern countries.

Chrismon Tree

Spenser came up with the Chrismon idea thinking of how to decorate a Christmas tree at her church.

While these ornaments can be hung at any other place in your home to remind of the Christmas meaning, a tree is a traditional place for them.

Each church has different guidelines regarding Chrismon placement on the Christmas tree.

For instance, in the Ascension Lutheran Church that served the origin for Chrismons, people hang the Christian Year Series Chrismons at the front of the tree.

In addition, they hang international ornaments and gifts on the right, and on the left, Beatitudes collection ornaments.

The first Chrismon tree created by Spenser wasn’t large and only featured 11 ornaments. These included the Chi-Rho symbol, stars, and multiple cross types.

Today, Chrismon trees set up in churches are usually tall, exceeding 15 feet, and feature dozens of ornaments.

Can Chrismons Be Hung at Home?

You may wonder, are Chrismons used solely in churches, or can they be hung at home? Naturally, any Christian can decorate their home with these meaningful ornaments.

There’s nothing wrong with wishing to remind oneself of the true story behind Christmas. However, one rule must be followed.

The Chrismons should always be white and gold. The very purpose of Chrismons was to replace the colorful and meaningless, in Spenser’s opinion, baubles and figurines that were used for Christmas tree decorations back in 1957 (and to this day).

You may create colorful decorations featuring Christian ornaments, but they won’t be Chrismons by definition.

Are Other Christmas Tree Ornaments Sacrilegious?

Chrismons were created to replace traditional Christmas ornaments as their inventor considered them blasphemous. But was Frances Kipps Spencer right? The answer lies in the origin of popular Christmas tree decorations.

Despite a common misconception, Christmas tree baubles didn’t get such a shape for no reason.

Instead, their shape originates from the original Christmas tree decorations – fruits and nuts. These were the only decorations available at that time.

The Christmas star, on the other hand, has a religious meaning. It symbolizes the Star of Bethlehem that guided Joseph and Mary on their way from Nazareth.

Surprisingly, candy canes also have religious roots. The “J” shape represents the crooks of shepherds who visited infant Jesus.

Of course, angel figurines also have religious connotations. For example, they symbolize angel Gabriel who told Mary she was pregnant with Jesus or the angels who told the Wise Men not to return to King Herod.

Christmas lights are a modern version of candles that have both practical and symbolic purposes.

They were used to light up Christmas tree ornaments and symbolized joy, peace, and hope. Lights can also represent stars, a traditional Christmas symbol.

So, should we replace other Christmas ornaments with Chrismons entirely? Perhaps not. Each Christmas ornament we use today has a story and meaning, and a pop of color doesn’t make them blasphemous.

Still, Chrismons will make a beautiful and meaningful addition to your traditional decorations, representing Christ’s story, our hopes and faith, and the joy of coming Christmas.

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