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Christmas Decorations Heraldry – The Heraldic Meaning of Traditional Festive Symbols

At this time of year, thoughts turn to seasonal decoration…

The shops are full of foliage to transform our homes into a festive wonderland. Wreaths and swags adorn gateways and mantle pieces. Trees are festooned with baubles and the imagery is often rich in tradition.

Christmas Decorations in Heraldry

Likewise, in heraldry, there is meaning to many of the plants and symbols that we associate with Christmas. Holly, for example was in use to adorn temples and sacred palaces and its name derives from ‘holy’. In heraldic terms, it is also used to represent truth. Sometimes, holly represents as a branch, with three leaves tied together.

Doves are a symbol of the soul and holy spirit, signifying peace, gentleness and purity. In armoury, the dove signifies loving constancy and peace. In heraldry, the dove has one peculiarity – it is always on show with a slight tuft on its head. This is possibly to distinguish it from the wood pigeon.

Many examples show a dove with an olive sprig in its beak. You can frequently find this in the arms for bishops and it is a symbol on the coat of arms for Edward the Confessor.

Musical instruments

Musical instruments in heraldry signify festivity and rejoicing, making them the perfect Christmas symbol. The clarion is an ancient brass instrument and the bearer of this sign may have been a musician or ceremonial trumpeter. Likewise the trumpet it would signify the call to battle or the mustering call for a crusade. They are therefore suitable heraldic bearings for someone who would bravely follow such a sound into battle.

Next time you are decorating your Christmas tree with doves and musical baubles, or placing a spring of holly around a candle, remember that you are also joining a tradition of symbolism that stretches back for hundreds of years!

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