Both Christians and non-Christians all over the world celebrate Christmas each year. Whereas this annual festival has important religious and symbolic meaning for Christians, non-believers join in on the festivities to participate in the spirit of Christmas, which is one of giving thanks — and, of course, presents! Christmas has become synonymous with Christmas trees, Carols by Candlelight, wreaths, and also Christingles. The latter is one of the lesser-known symbols of Christmas in the U.S. It is a tradition that has its roots in the Moravian church of 18th-century Germany and was only popularized for the first time in 1968 in England. Read on to find out more about this Christmas tradition.
What Is a Christingle?
A Christingle is a strange-looking object. Consisting of an orange impaled by a candle and cocktail sticks, topped with candy, a Christingle looks more like an object used for Pagan worship than a Christmas symbol. However, for many Christians around the world, the Christingle serves as a special symbol that’s meant to teach kids the importance of Jesus Christ.
Although it is not known for sure what the name “Christingle” means, some suggest that it is derived from the German word, Christkindl, which means “Christ child.” In countries such as Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, the Christkindl is the traditional Christmas gift-bringer — not Santa Claus. The Christkindl is typically depicted with blond hair and angelic wings, and some view it as the infant Jesus, while others think of it as an angel who brings presents.
However, the term Christingle could also be a portmanteau of the words “Christmas” and “ingle,” which is an old Scottish word that means “fire.” If so, the term could roughly be translated as “Christ Light.” Since the tradition originated in Germany, though, the first interpretation is likely more accurate.
What Is the History of the Christingle?
The tradition of the Christingle has its origins in a Moravian Church in Marienborn, Germany. During an advent service in 1747, minister John De Watteville gifted each child in the congregation with a small candle wrapped in a red ribbon. For De Watteville, the candle’s flame symbolized Jesus as the Light of the World, while the red ribbon represented the blood of Christ. During the final prayer of the service, de Watteville apparently spoke the words “Lord Jesus, kindle a flame in these children’s hearts, that theirs like Thine become,” which made the symbolism of his gifts to the children clear.
After this event, the Christingle became a custom of the Moravian Church, and it is still practiced by Moravian Churches all over the world today. A special Christingle Service is held annually, and it takes place either on the Sunday before Christmas or on Christmas Eve. The original Christingle, which consists of a beeswax candle wrapped with a red ribbon, is still used in many Moravian Churches. However, the Christingle tradition was adapted in the British Moravian Church, which is how the Christingle received its new, modern look, consisting of an orange, a candle, and sweets on cocktail sticks.
When Was the Christingle Popularized?
The custom of the Christingle was largely only practiced within the Moravian Church until 1968, when John Pensom, aka “Mr. Christingle,” organized a non-Moravian-Church Christingle ceremony at the Lincoln Cathedral in the East Midlands of England. The aim of the ceremony was to raise funds for an English youth charity, named The Children’s Society. The turn-out far exceeded expectations. While it was thought that about 300 people would attend the ceremony, over 1,500 people showed up. Since this ceremony was such a success, the Society held seven services the next year, and about double that in the year to follow.
These fund-raising Christingle ceremonies are still being hosted by The Children’s Society today, with the number of services running well into the thousands annually. For Brits, both Christian and non-believers, these Christingle ceremonies serve as a way for them to help some of the most vulnerable members of their societies. These services are uplifting events that include hymns, messages of hope, and an opportunity to learn about The Children’s Society.
The Symbolism of the Christingle
Whereas the original Christingle consisted of a beeswax candle with a red ribbon, which represent the light and blood of Jesus respectively, the modern Christingle is an altogether more complex creation with added symbolism. The various parts of the Christingle represent the following:
- An orange: With its round shape, the orange represents the world.
- A candle: Pushed into the center of the orange, the candle symbolizes Jesus Christ as the Light of the World, as it does in the original version of the Christingle
- A red ribbon: The meaning of the red ribbon, which is wrapped around the orange, is also retained. It symbolizes the blood of Christ.
- Dried fruits and/or sweets: The sweets or fruits represent the fruits of the earth, which are nurtured by rain and sunshine.
- Four cocktail sticks: The sticks that are pushed into the orange represent the four seasons and also the four cardinal directions, namely North, South, East, and West.
However, the Christingle as we know it may not continue indefinitely — that is, in packed public spaces such as church services, at least. The danger of children holding lighted candles in cramped areas has not gone unnoticed. Worrying about the danger of children’s hair catching fire, or about a fire in general, some have started to swap Christingles for glowsticks.
Although it is undoubtedly safer, the Christingle tradition loses much of its charm and magic without actual Christingles. A big part of the fun lies in the making of Christingles — and, of course, in the eating of sweets and fruits. Luckily, and for the most part, Christingles seem to be persisting at most services and celebrations. For now, that is.
How to Make a Christingle
Making a Christingle is very easy. First, you want to fasten a red ribbon around the middle of the orange. You need to cut a small cross in the top of the orange, and then place a square of tin foil that’s roughly 3 square inches in size over the cross. The function of the tin foil is to prevent hot wax from running onto a child’s hand. Next, place a candle on top of the tin foil and slowly wedge it into the orange.
After you’ve inserted the candle, you need to poke four cocktail sticks into the orange. They should be placed around the candle. Push any fruit or sweets of your liking onto the cocktail sticks, including cherries, raisins, and marshmallows. During a survey that was done in the U.K. to find out which are the most popular Christingle sweets, the nation voted for fudge as its favorite. Fruit pastilles took second place, followed by jelly babies in third place.
Other Christmas Symbols and What They Represent
Now that you understand what the symbolism behind the Christingle is, you may be wondering about some other Christmas traditions we follow. Why do we put presents under a Christmas tree, for instance? And what’s the meaning of the wreath?
As is the case with many of the traditions surrounding Christmas, the wreath was initially a pagan symbol. Pagans in Northern Europe believed that the sun was a wheel, and that winters were cold and snowy because the wheel had rolled away from the earth. To try coax the sun back towards them, they decorated their homes with wheels covered with greenery during the winter solstice.
Evergreens, such as holly, ivy, and mistletoe, which also flower in the winter, were selected for wreaths since they represented fertility and new life during the darkest and coldest months of the year. With the advent of Christianity, the wreath remained but took on new symbolism, with the unbroken circle representing God’s eternal love.
The Christmas Tree
Bringing evergreen trees and plants into the house has been used in winter festival celebrations for thousands of years. In Europe, pagans brought the branches of evergreen fir trees into their homes to cheer them up during the winter solstice. Early Romans also decorated their temples with evergreens during the festival of Saturnia.
Like the Christingle, the tradition of using a tree during Christmas celebrations originated in Germany. In the 16th century, Christians brought trees into their homes and decorated them with nuts, apples, and gingerbread. In the 17th century, decorated Christmas trees started appearing at festivals and also at the big royal courts, where they were decorated with gold leaf and paper decorations. As the Germans emigrated to other parts of the world, this custom spread and was assimilated by other cultures.
Although you may think that the poinsettia’s red color and green leaves are the reason why it has widely been accepted as the Christmas flower, this custom actually stems from Mexican folklore. The story goes that brother and sister, Maria and Pablo, didn’t have gifts to bring to the town’s Nativity scene, so they picked up pretty leaves and used these as their offering. They were teased by the townsfolk for their humble gift. However, when they placed the leaves around the manger, they bloomed into red star-shaped flowers.