Images of angels adorn NATIVITY SCENES, CHRISTMAS CARDS, CHRISTMAS TREES, and many other Christmas displays. These popular CHRISTMAS SYMBOLS boast an ancient pedigree. They play a prominent role in the New Testament accounts of JESUS’ birth (see also GOSPEL ACCOUNTS OF CHRISTMAS; GOSPEL ACCORDING TO LUKE; and GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MATTHEW). Angels also appear in many Old Testament stories.
The Hebrew scriptures (the Christian Old Testament) often use the term malakh, meaning “messenger,” to refer to the beings we call angels. Writing in Greek, the authors of Christian scripture called these beings angelos, a Greek term meaning “messenger” or “her-ald.” This word eventually passed into the English language as “angel.” Although the word “angelos” denoted an ordinary, human messenger, biblical authors selected it over another available Greek term, daimon, which referred to a guardian spirit. Perhaps they discarded this term because Greek lore taught that the daimon exercised both good and evil influences over people. Eventually, the Greek word “daimon” passed into the English language as “demon.”
The angels of biblical tradition frequently acted as messengers. In fact, angels served this function in both scriptural accounts of Jesus’ birth. In Matthew’s account of the Nativity an angel appeared to JOSEPH on three separate occasions. The first time the angel came to explain the nature of MARY’s pregnancy. Later, an angel warned Joseph of HEROD’s evil intentions concerning Jesus and advised him to flee into EGYPT (see also FLIGHT INTO EGYPT; HOLY INNOCENTS’ DAY). An angel returned one final time to inform Joseph of Herod’s death and to command his return to Israel. In Luke’s account of the Nativity, the angel GABRIEL visited Mary to inform her that she would bear a child by the Holy Spirit. On the night of Jesus’ birth an angel appeared to SHEPHERDS in a nearby field to announce the glorious event. Then a “multitude” of angels suddenly materialized behind the first angel, singing praises to God.
What Angels Look Like
With so many angels involved in orchestrating the events surrounding Jesus’ birth, it is no wonder that they became a symbol of the Christmas holiday. Today’s Christmas angels frequently appear as winged human beings in flowing white robes with somewhat feminine faces and haloes. This image evolved over the course of two millennia.
The very first Christian depictions of angels date back to the time of the Roman Empire. Early Christian paintings of angels rendered them as ordinary men rather than as winged, spiritual beings. Some artists, however, garbed their angels in white robes, resembling a Roman senator’s toga, in order to symbolize their power and dignity. The first winged angels appeared in the fourth century. Some scholars believe that early Christian artists patterned the image of winged angels after the Greek goddess Nike, the winged, female spirit of victory. Others trace this image back even further to winged spirits associated with the religion of ancient Babylon. By the fifth century Christian artists from the Byzantine Empire began to depict angels with a disk of light, called a nimbus, behind their heads. This nimbus, or halo, signifies holiness, purity, and spiritual power.
In medieval times most western European artists portrayed angels as masculine in face and form. This trend reversed itself from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries. After that time, western European angels acquired softer, more feminine, or androgynous, looks. Sometimes they appeared as chubby children or toddlers. Artists often depicted angels with harps or other musical instruments. These emblems signify what some consider to be the primary occupation of angels—praising God.