The halo, or nimbus, has been used for centuries to denote deity. When appearing in Christian art, a halo symbolizes the light of God and a soul infused with God’s spirit. The halo also signifies God’s “glory,” from the Greek word doxa, meaning the shining brilliance of God.
Jesus’ outstretched arms
The Christ Child’s outstretched arms reflect the invitation to salvation through him.
Most scholars believe that the stable referred to in the Gospels was most likely a cave built into the rocks behind, or adjacent to, the inn, which illustrates the divine truth that the Son of God came down to the very heart of the earth to dwell among humanity. Later, the cave would be revered as Christ’s burial place, from which he would be resurrected.
Swaddling clothes, as described in the New Testament, foretell Jesus’ burial shroud.
The Virgin Mary’s gown
The Virgin Mary often wears a gown of red, signifying lifeblood. Her mantle of blue represents the sky and heaven, conveying that she is the link between the human and the divine.
Hands over heart
At times, Mary is seen with hands clutched over her heart, alluding to St. Luke’s account: “But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.”
(Luke 2: 19)
The shepherds represent the common man. They also reference David, the shepherd who became king, and indicate Christ's ancestral lineage.
The Good Shepherd
Throughout the Old Testament, God is often referred to as a shepherd: “He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart.”
(Isaiah 40: 11)
The three wise men, or Magi, are often depicted as being three different ages — one young, one middle-aged, and one elderly — relating to the three stages of life.
Gifts of the Magi
The gifts the Magi bring to Christ also take on significance. Gold indicates Christ’s kingship, incense symbolizes his divinity and myrrh foreshadows his death.
Nationalities of the Magi
The Magi are often portrayed as coming from three geographical and cultural areas — Asia, Africa and Europe — referring to the three known continents at the time.
The Magi’s animals
The animals that carry the Magi to Bethlehem vary as well. You may see them riding a horse from Europe, a camel from Asia and an elephant from Africa.
The stable animals
The ox and ass illustrate that Christ is the king of all creation, both human and animal. The ox is believed to represent patience while the ass connotes humility.
The animals watch over Christ
The animals are often seen hovering over the Christ Child, as though to warm him with their breath.
Having accompanied the shepherds, lambs are almost always present. The lamb symbolizes purity and points toward Jesus’ sacrificial death upon the cross.
The rooster is sometimes included as a symbol of vigilance, and foreshadows the cock crowing three times on the night of Jesus’ betrayal.
The dog is believed to embody faithfulness and loyalty.
The presence of Roman or Greek columns, often as ruins, depicts Christianity’s triumph over the pagan world. Also illustrating Jesus’ birth into both a Jewish and Hellenistic world, they reiterate the message that Christ came for all races and all cultures.
The presence of a well signifies the purity of Jesus and references the waters of baptism.
Romans acknowledged the palm branch as a symbol of victory. In a nativity, palms represent the branches waved on Christ’s entry into Jerusalem and fore tells his triumph over the grave.
The inclusion of contemporary figures in native clothing helps Christians of different cultures to relate personally to the events of the Holy Night.
Farmers, bakers and candlestick makers
At times, figures representing common occupations are added to emphasize that Christ came for people from all walks of life.