Subtopic: Celebration Symbols and their meaning.

Grade Level: 3rd-4th

Author: Stephanie McKinney



Symbols play a large part in celebrating important events. We characterize our holidays by

symbols. Symbols are things or objects that we use or think of when celebrating a holiday. These objects

usually represent something else (an event, idea or person). We can remember why we are celebrating an

event if we know the meaning behind symbols. Knowing the key ideas or reasons behind using the

celebration symbols we are also able to understand how a celebration came to be. Here are some examples

of some familiar celebration symbols and their meanings.

Birthdays-A person's day of birth.

Candles- Early people believed that the smoke from fires would ascend to the tops of the distant mountains, to the far away sky. They hoped that the gods who lived in these mysterious places would answer their prayers they had said over the flames.

Games- Playing games at birthday parties are suppose to symbolize trying to know the unknown, in this case the unknown is the future or the new year of life that lies ahead for the birthday person.

Noise makers (horns, bursting balloons, firecrackers)- are suppose to scare of any bad-luck spirits that are hovering over the birthday person.

Spankings- Birthday spanks, spank away any evil spirits and send them scurrying far into the distance. Punches, thumps, and pinches are supposed to do the same thing. In Belgium, a family member may tiptoe into the birthday child's room early in the morning, and awake the child with a prick of a needle for good luck.


Halloween-October 31st

Black Cats- The Celtic people believed that the evil spirits took the form of the cats. Because of this people were afraid of cats. They believed that cats had evil powers.

Costumes- Long ago, the Celtic people of the British Isles celebrated a harvest called Samhain, in honor of the dead. The Celts believed that on that night, spirits of the dead gathered, so they dressed up in masked customs to frighten them away.

Jack-O-Lanterns- A pumpkin with a face lit by a candle during the pagan celebration of Halloween was originally symbolic of scaring away evil spirits.


Thanksgiving-Fourth Thursday in November in the United States

Horn of Plenty- This horn full of fruit and vegetables is symbolic of the bounty of harvest in the Thanksgiving celebration.

Turkey- Wild turkeys were hunted then in the forests of Plymouth were the great-grandfather of the birds would appear on the holiday tables.


Christmas-December 31st

Christmas Tree- This is symbolic for the hope of world peace.

Evergreen, and Holly- Ancient winter decorations.

Gifts- A Roman tradition, represent the gifts that were given to Christ when he was born.

Mistletoe- As a Christian symbol, came from the Druids, as a symbol of peace. When enemies met under it they took off their swords and embraced each other.

Mincemeat pie- Pie is filled with rich and exotic spices representing the treasures the three wise men brought.

Naivety- A display of figurines depicting the birth of Christ is a common decoration during Christmas and symbolizes this event.

St. Nicholas- There really was a man named Nicholas who was designated a saint by the Catholic Church. Bornin the fourth century A.D., he was a bishop in the church . Legends tell of his kindness and miracles he performed. They also tell of his great love for children.


New Year's Day-January 1st

Horns, Fireworks, Loud Bells- From the earliest times loud bells were used to frighten away evil spirits.

Old Man and Baby- Out with the old (year that has passed) and in with the new.

Roman god with two faces- One head is looking forward to the new year and the other is looking back at the old. This is the reason why in America we stay up late to watch the old year out and the new year in.


Valentines Day- February 14th

Cards with hearts- symbolizes love and affection

Ribbons, Lace and frills-Such items have been associated with romance since days of knighthood. The knight would ride into battle with a piece of ribbon or scarf given to him by his lady fair.

The Dove on Valentine Greeting cards- Doves mate for life this is a sign of fidelity. It is also believed that birds choose their mates on February 14th, this belief has given rise to honoring one's lover or sweetheart on this day.

Valentines- These came from the day that Lupercalia held the Romans. He would put the names of young men and woman into a box and then he would draw them out. The man and woman whose name was drawn at the same time were expected to be sweethearts for the next year. They would often send each other gifts and sweet messages.


St. Patricks Day- March 17th

Shamrock- In the celebration of St. Patrick's Day, the Shamrock symbolizes the doctrine of the Trinity that St. Patrick taught in bringing Christianity to Ireland.

St. Patrick- March 17 is said to be the day St. Patrick died. He is Ireland's patron saint, who when he was a young man, was captured and sold as a slave. He later escaped France, where he rose to the position of bishop. When he returned to Ireland, be brought with him Christianity, founding many churches and schools.


Easter- First Sunday after the first full moon of the year.

The name Easter- comes from the Anglo-Saxon name for the goddess of spring and fertility.

Eggs- are the symbol of birth and for a long time were not eaten during Lent.

Grass, and Flowers- shows the rebirth in nature, symbolizing the resurrection of Jesus Christ

Rabbits and Bunnies- The easter bunnies brought back the eggs that were not eaten during Lent. They are known for their fertility.

Easter Dresses-Constantine commanded his council to wear their most elegant robes to observe the day of christ's resurrection.


May Day- May 1st

Maypole- In England during the rule of Queen Elizabeth I people went into the forest at dawn on May Day to bring back flowers and branches of trees. They would set up a maypole in the town square and decorate it with ribbons and flowers. The people would dance around it to celebrate the blossoming of flowers.

Independence Day- July 4th

Uncle Sam- he represents stern farmers who built Colonial America.



Ainsworth, Harris. (1979). American Calendar Customs Vol. 1. Buffalo, NY: Clyde.

Ainsworth, Harris. (1980). American Calendar Customs Vol. 2. Buffalo, NY: Clyde.

Burnet, Bernice. (1955). The First Book of Holidays. New York, NY: Franklin Watts.

Crook, Tamara. Celebrations! Logan, UT: Utah State University.

Perl, Lila. (1984) Candles, Cakes, and Donkey Tails. New York, NY: Clarion.


*Students will understand that symbols have meanings.

*Students will be able to identify different celebration symbols and what they mean.

*Students will demonstrate their understanding of the concept of symbols.

*Students will identify a symbol in their life and recreate it.

*Students will create a class room symbol.


Time Allotment: Approximately 3 to 5 class periods.


* Variety of different celebration symbols (found in background section)

* Large white sheets of paper

* Construction paper, pop sickle sticks, yarn, styrofoam balls, etc. (Materials from home.)

* Parent Letter



A. Pre-assessment. Ask the class what they know about symbols and what symbols are used for. Have the students give examples of symbols and what they mean. Write on the board these examples and why they are used in the students lives. (For example, symbols on street signs, symbols in weddings, symbols on maps, etc.)

B. Carousel. Find out what your students know about celebration symbols and their meaning by having them participate in a carousel. Divide the class into 5-10 groups (depending on the number of celebrations you want to address). Hang large white sheets of paper displayed around the room, with a question such as "Celebration symbols for Christmas? Celebration symbols for Easter? etc. attached to the paper. Give each group a different color pen and have them mark all the different celebration symbols they can think of for each holiday being addressed. Remind the students that they cannot repeat a prior groups symbol, and they must have something written in their groups color pen on each paper. Rotate the groups approximately every one minute.

C. Explore. Divide children in groups and give each group several celebration symbols to explore. Have them discuss what each symbol might mean. Have each group of students share their symbol with the rest of the class, and what it might represent (or what it's meaning might be). Leave the symbols out in a center for exploration with a label telling what the symbol is and what it represents. Encourage students to bring appropriate symbols used in celebrations from home for an exploration center.

D. Brainstorm. Have the c 0a whole discuss symbols that were written on the large white sheets of paper from the carousel activity. Write the correct meanings next to the symbols on the sheets of paper, display these sheets next to the exploration center. For those symbols whose meanings are unfamiliar to the students have the students be creative and express what they think they might be by comparing them to the meanings of others. For example: Jack-o-lanterns scared away evil spirits and the celtics also believed that dressing up in costumes did the same.

E. Mini-lecture. Explain that celebration symbols have meanings and there are often reasons why we celebrate an event, or holiday. Symbols help us remember why we are celebrating and give us some background on why some celebrations came to be. Assign each student a holiday and have them draw a picture of a symbol and write a sentence or two about the meaning of that symbol

F. Think-Pair-Share. Have each child think of a special symbol they have in their life that has  meaning to them. For example: One might hold up three fingers symbolizing "I Love You" they might demonstrate this gesture to their family and other love ones. Separate the students into pairs have them share their symbol with one another. (If a student can not think of a special symbol, have them think of a symbol from a celebration observed in his or her own home)

G. Hands-On. Have each student use what ever materials are available and best suit his/her purpose to create the symbol they shared in the think-pair-share activity. Have students write a sentence or para Äout the meaning of their symbol. Display symbols and their descriptions where students can explore them further. Let students know about this activity in advance so they can plan to bring materials from home or get help from parents in choosing a symbol and understanding its meaning. A letter inviting parents to help their children with this activity could be sent home with students. (See appendix.)

H. Application. Have the class brainstorm and come up with a classroom symbol, it could either be something that is a signal such as the three fingers or it could be something constructed. Direct them to be creative, and remember it must have meaning to it. Construct an object that will hang in the classroom, reminding the students of the classroom's symbol.


* Pictures and sentences about symbols will be assessed.

* The construction of a symbol from home and it's meaning will be assessed.

* Response to class discussions will be assessed.

* Creation of a classroom symbol will be assessed.



Dear Parent,


We will be discussing different symbols used in celebrating holidays and what they mean. Along with these symbols we will be discussing symbols that we have with our family at home. Please take a moment to help your child think of a symbol. The symbol can be a holiday decoration that you put up each year to celebrate a holiday, or it could be a symbol (a sign, a gesture, something that stays up year round) that tells members of your family something of importance.

As our class discusses symbols your child will have the opportunity to recreate this symbol and share it with the class. To make this activity possible, your student might need different materials that are not available at school. Please help your child successfully complete this project by finding materials around the house that can be used to model of their symbol.

Thank you for your support.




Stephanie A. McKinney


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