Subtopic: Celebration Symbols and Their Meaning (winter focus)

Grade Level: 3rd-4th

Author: Elizabeth Yardley



A symbol is anything that conveys information or stands for an object or idea. Symbols are a necessary part of the human experience. Whether in the form of illustrations, letter symbols, gestures, or spoken words, symbols are the basis for almost all communication.

Symbols play an important part of our understanding and learning about human history many years ago. Just as we need symbols today to communicate, the ancient people living on the earth needed symbols to communicate also. Some people only used drawings, such as the Native Americans (they developed letter symbols after the white people came to their land). Some ancient societies, such as the Egyptians, used letter symbols from their own alphabet to communicate.

Individuals, nations, and other organizations use symbols to represent data, ideas, and beliefs. Symbols are used often in religion, science, mathematics, written languages, and as national emblems. Each country of the world has a flag as a symbol of their country. In the United States, the stars on the flag are a symbol representing the fifty states. A symbol only exists as long as the people give it meaning. A symbol can be very powerful, but can also loose meaning if the people dishonor or ignore it.

Another way we use symbols are in celebrations. Symbols used in celebrations often convey the beliefs of an individual or group. Celebration symbols also reflect what is important to an individual or group. Some symbols can have different meanings to different groups. For example, the Christmas tree is a symbol of peace and Christ to people in England, but it was a symbol of eternal life to the Romans because of the evergreen branches.

Winter is a season that has many celebrations and symbols for many people. One of the most well known symbols in winter celebrations is the "gift givers". Santa Claus is the most widely known American gift giver for celebrating Christmas. However, before the gift givers were developed, gifts were exchanged at the winter solstice festivals to celebrate the new season. These winter celebrations included gifts of holly, ivy, and mistletoe as gifts of peace. The gift givers are unique to different people in different countries. The German goddess Hertha took gifts of good fortune and health to her people. The Romans (those who were rich) gave gifts of holly and laurel to the poor. Jewish people celebrated in the winter with gifts for each day of Chanukah. The three kings (or wise men) gave gifts to the baby Jesus. Many Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus today by giving gifts (symbolic of the wise men giving gifts to Jesus). St. Nicholas was an actual person who lived in the fourth century who was known for his kindness and love of children. From then on, anyone receiving an unexpected gift said that St. Nicholas had done it. St. Nicholas is known in many countries. Svaty Miklaus is the Czechoslovakian gift giver who is let down from heaven by means of a golden cord held by angels. In Italy, Befana is a gift giver who searches the world over every Epiphany Eve (a celebration held in winter), leaving gifts and candy in the shoes of sleeping children just in case one of them is the baby Jesus who she did not see when she had the chance to go to Bethlehem with the wise men. The Russian version of the Italian Befana is an old woman named Baboushka.

There are other winter celebration symbols that are meaningful to different people. The star symbolizes the star in the east that lead the wise men to find the baby Jesus. The yule log symbol came from Scandinavia who burned a log in honor of their god Thor. The Christians adopted this tradition and considered it to be good luck to keep a piece of the log in the house. Mistletoe was first used as a part of winter solstice celebrations. The Norse believed that if enemies met underneath it, they declared a truce for the day. This may be where the tradition of kissing beneath the mistletoe came from.


Crampton, William G. (1981). Flags of the World. London, New York: F. Warne.

Fontana, David. (1993). The Secret Language of Symbols. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.

Giblin, James. (1983). Fireworks, Picnics, and Flags. New York: Clarion Books.

Livingston, Myra Cohn. (1985). Celebrations. New York: Scholastic Inc.

(1991 printing).

Yolen, Jane. (1991). Hark! A Christmas Sampler. New York: G.P. Putman's Sons.



1. Students will recognize that countries have celebration symbols unique to them even if they are the same symbol.

2. Students will recognize that symbols are a method of communication.

3. Students will demonstrate their understanding of the concept of a symbol.

4. Students will develop a symbol that represents something that they wish to celebrate or include in a certain celebration of their choosing.

Time Allotment: Approximately 4 to 5 class periods.

Resources Needed:

1. Examples of ancient symbols (if possible)

2. Construction paper for class flag

3. Permission to take class in a big group to the visual arts museum

4. Parent letter for volunteers to go on field trip

5. Construction paper to create own symbol

6. Road symbol shapes

7. Seven pieces of construction paper for "scatter papers"

8. "Gift Givers" quick quiz



A. Anticipatory/Introduction- Have road signs in plain view in the front of the room. Ask students to identify the symbols and what they mean.

B. Mini-lecture- Explain what a symbol is. Explain that we need symbols to communicate with each other. We use math symbols, the alphabet, words, body language, and speech to communicate. Ancient people needed to communicate with each other too. Just as we use road signs to communicate, many ancient people used drawings and written symbols to communicate. Show the example of an ancient form of symbols (if it was possible to obtain it- you might look in Native American books for petroglyphs). Point out that ancient people many times communicated about things that were important to them, such as food. For example, many Native wings of animals that they hunted for food. Another reason they used symbols was to communicate their religious beliefs and social customs. Check for understanding by asking the students to write two sentences about why symbols are important (to communicate, religion, math, science, and language are some possible answers) and one way that ancient people used symbols (drawings or written symbols).

C. Think-Pair-Share- Have each student think of a symbol that they see orencounter in their lives (flag, words, math, holidays, etc.) Have the students pair up and share their ideas with their teammate. Invite afew students to share with the whole class.

D. Field Trip- Obtain permission from the USU Fine Arts Museum to go on a class. The Museum contains certain permanent pieces of Navajo and Hopi Indian displays. Point out the symbols used for celebration.

E. Concept Development- Review information about symbols being important for communication today as well as in ancient times. Point out that symbols are often used in celebrations around the world. Give the example of the Christmas tree meaning eternal life because of it's evergreen branches. Tell the students that the Christmas tree is a symbol of everlasting life in England becausethe needles never turn brown or fall to the ground like other trees. A non-example of a symbol would be a hair clip for your hair. It doesn't mean anything; it's only purpose is to hold your hair in place.

F. Carousel Brainstorming- Give each table (of four people each) a marker to write with (each table gets a different color). Have each table go to a scatter paper (a big piece of construction paper that has a celebration written at the top. There will be seven scatter papers in all, each having one celebration written at the top: Christmas, Easter, Earth Day, Halloween, St. Patrick's Day, Thanksgiving, New Year's. Tell each team that they are to write symbols under each holiday that go with the holiday. Model on the board writing the word "trees" under the word "Arbor Day." Have the teams go to a scatter paper. Time the teams for one minute at each paper to write as many symbols as they can think of. Before you begin, assign one person from each team to make sure that every member participates in some way. Check for understanding by the color of team marker. Discuss some of the symbols of the holidays.

G. Jigsaw- Tell the students that Christmas is a celebration that occurs in the wintertime. Tell them that Santa Claus is one symbol of Christmas. Point out to them that there are many symbols of many winter time celebrations. Tell them that one symbol of many celebrations that occur in the winter are "gift givers," such as Santa Claus. Give each group materials to read about a different "gift giver." They will include information about Romans, Chanukah, the Three Kings, St. Nicholas, Svaty Miklaus, Befana, and Baboushka. After selecting a team reader and reading the passage, count off each table. Give each group time to prepare what they will share as part of the "expert group." Put each number in a group (one's together, two's together, etc.) and have them share the information they learned with each other. Check for understanding with the quick quiz.

H. Extension Mini-lecture- Tell the students some more winter celebration symbols. The star is a symbol of birth and the birth of Christ. The yule log was a way to worship the Norman god Thor, but is burned today in many countries for good luck. Mistletoe has been used in winter solstice festivals as a symbol of peace even before the gift givers. Mistletoe was used as a peace plant by the Nomen and Romans. The Norse believed that if they met an enemy under the mistletoe, they must call a truce for the day. Perhaps this is where the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe got started.

I. Make Your Own Symbol- Pass out construction paper and have the students create their own symbol for a holiday or celebration of their own choice. Have them write a paragraph about what the symbol means or stands for and paste it on the backside of the symbol creation. Before having the students do it, show them an example of your own symbol of a penny and that it means honesty. Tell them the story of how once you dropped a penny out of your purse and how an honest little child picked it up and gave it back toyou. That is why a penny is the symbol of honesty to you. Allow the students who wish to share their symbol with the class come up andtell about their symbol.



1. Scatter papers will be assessed.

2. Gift Giver quick quiz will be assessed.

3. Individual symbol creations and explanations will be assessed.

4. Responses to discussion questions will be assessed.




Quick Quiz

Write in the correct answer from the list at the bottom.

1. Who was given credit when unexpected gifts were found?

2. Who came down from heaven on a golden cord held by angels?

3. Who is remembered for giving gifts to the baby Jesus?

4. Who was the woman Italian gift giver who left gifts in childrens' shoes?

5. Who was the old Russian woman who gave gifts to sleeping children looking for the Christ child?

6. Who gave gifts of holly and mistletoe as peace gifts for winter festivals?

7. What celebration do Jewish people celebrate where they give gifts for eight days?

Possible Answers


Svaty Miklaus


The Three Kings

St. Nicholas




Parent Letter

Dear Parents,

We are discussing symbols and how they are important in celebrations around the world. We are focusing

on winter celebrations. If there are any world celebrations on which you are very knowledgeable, we

would love to have you as a guest speaker. Also, if you know any unique symbols for any winter

celebration, we would like to learn about them. If you could send an item with your child, we would like

to learn about it and put it on our interest table. If you can help with this symbols and celebrations topic, I

would appreciate it. Please sign this paper and send it back with your child if you would like to

help. We also need volunteers to go with us to the USU Visual Arts Museum on December 10th.

Thank you for your assistance.




*Please sign this form and send it to school with your child to verify that you have read it.

Parent Signature: Date:




Jigsaw Activities Information: Group #1


Baboushka is the Russian gift giver. She is an old woman who was too busy to go with the wise men to Bethlehem. Now, she searches the world looking for candy in the shoes of sleeping children.

Jigsaw Activities Information: Group #2


Befana is the Italian gift giver. She was too busy cleaning her house to go see Jesus with the wise men, so now she goes from house to house looking for the child. She leaves gifts of candy in the shoes of Italian sleeping children in case one of them is the child she seeks.

Jigsaw Activities Information: Group #3

Saint Nicholas

Saint Nicholas was an actual real person who lived in Asia Minor a long time ago. He was very kind and generous to everyone. He once helped a merchant by giving him a bag of gold. He left the gold at the merchant's house by tossing it through the window. Now, in numerous European countries, when a person receives a surprise gift without knowing who gave it to them, they say that St. Nicholas did it.

Jigsaw Activities Information: Group #4

Svaty Miklaus

Svaty Miklaus is the Czechoslovakian gift giver. Svaty Miklaus comes down from heaven to give gifts. There is a special way that he comes down from heaven. Svaty Miklaus comes down held up by a golden cord. People say that the cord is held by angels.

Jigsaw Activity Information: Group #5


Chanukah was started a long, long time ago. Chanukah is a celebration held in winter time. Jewish people celebrated Chanukah by giving gifts for eight days. A candle was burned on each day of gift giving for eight days. Today the Jewish people still celebrate this celebration.

Jigsaw Activity Information: Group #6


Before gift givers were even developed, the Romans would give gifts to celebrate the winter solstice festivals. The rich Romans would give gifts of holly, ivy, and mistletoe to the poor. Holly, ivy, and mistletoe were symbols of peace and friendship.

Jigsaw Activity Information: Group #7

The Three Kings

Another name for the Three Kings is "Wise Men." The Christian people celebrate Christmas by giving gifts to each other. The Three Kings gave gifts to Jesus. The Three Kings are known as the first ones to give gifts to celebrate the birth of Christ. The Three Kings are a part of the religious celebration of Christmas.

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