Mystery, Symbols, Metaphors, and Meaning: Logotherapy During the Holidays

“…O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (Psalm 8)

This is a busy time of the year, and two holidays almost coincide. In the Jewish tradition, Hannukah started at sundown on Sunday, December 2. It lasts eight days until December 5th. Hannukah is one of the most widely observed Jewish holidays, also called the Festival of Lights. It commemorates that in 165 BC, Judas Maccabee and his brothers won a victory over the invading Syrian army. On that occasion, they re-dedicated the Temple in Jerusalem. The oil lamp inside the temple had enough oil for only one day. But the light did not dim, and the oil lasted for eight days until new oil could be made. Hannukah is a joyous, cheerful celebration of re-dedicating oneself. Tikkun Olam means spreading good in the world and being the light of the world.

In the Christian tradition, Advent, the four weeks before Christmas is a time of waiting and preparation. We prepare our hearts and minds for welcoming the Christ Child.  Jesus is the “Light of the World.”

In Frankl’s home both Christmas and Hannukah were observed (Klingberg, 2001).

Symbols and metaphors are commonly used in logotherapy to refer from the concrete to the abstract and to capture a meaning that goes beyond the mundane and the ordinary (Lukas, 2020).

In this presentation, we would like to consider some of the most frequent symbols associated with Hannukah and Christmas and illustrate logotherapeutic concepts or principles that can be pondered using these symbols. Symbols and metaphors are used in practice is for clarification and for encouraging the spirit. They usually occur in the context of an authentic “I and Thou” encounter, with the recognition that as therapists or patients, we are pilgrims in our journey of life (Marshall & Marshall, 2022). During the holidays, we profit from the time available for reflection and meditation to offer new insights and to allow meaning to unfold.  

The symbols that we chose to reflect on today are those most frequently noticed in our surroundings at this time: (1) The candle, (2) the tree, (3) the presents, and (4) the star.  Many of these items have rich symbolism and their existential significance can be explored.

  • The Candle:

Most of us have a candle in our homes. Whether we saved it from previous years, or we bought a new one for the holidays, our candles are ready to be lit.

The candle’s purpose, its function is to give light and warmth.

If we just kept candle hidden in the drawer, it would not fulfill its purpose.

So, let us take a closer look at our candle and observe what logotherapeutic thoughts may be associated with it. Some of the following ideas were described by Dr. Elisabeth Lukas’ “Candle Meditation,” found in her book, “Alles fugt Sich und erfullt sich,” published in 1994. She used these mediations in group settings:

The candle is composed of wax and has a structure.

Inside the wax is a tiny bit of wick that is visible on the top of the candle. The rest of the wick is invisible, but we know that it is inside.

The wick is the most important part of the candle, because without the wick, the candle would be of not much use. We could not light it, only burn it. (Maybe, that would not be such a good idea). 

The candle represents our human reality. Our bodies and mind that are like the wax, fragile. We are fallible, vulnerable, and finite beings.

Much like the wick, our essence is not our bodies, or minds, but rather, what is “inside,” and most hidden from the eye, other than a little bit of what is visible of the wick at the top of the candle, what can be seen.

Spirit is the very essence of our being.  Body and mind are only its instruments through which the spirit can express itself. This is similar, to how the wax provides structure and holding place for the wick so it can fulfill its function (Lukas, 1994).  The spirit relies on its instruments to accomplish its purpose.

We can say, we have hands, feet, and eyes. With a stretch of the imagination, perhaps we can embrace the statement that we are the feet, the hands, and the eyes through which truth, beauty and goodness can be brought into the world.

St. Theresa of Avila was a Carmelite nun and a mystic. She wrote these beautiful verses so appropriate to the metaphor of the candle:

Christ has no body but yours,

No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

Yours are the eyes with which he looks

Compassion on this world,

Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good

Yours are the hands with which he blesses the world.

Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,

Yours are the eyes, you are his body.

Christ has no body now but yours,

No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

Yours are the eyes with which he looks

Compassion on this world.

Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

When we light the candle, it gives light and warmth. This is the purpose of human life. To be a beacon of hope and to shine in the world though one’s actions of caring and kindness.

In the moment we light the candle the candle is no longer wax and wick, it is transformed into purpose and function. The physical energy is transformed into light and heat energy that radiates into the world and that remains in the world.

It is interesting to ponder that the reality of the candle giving light is independent if someone else can see the candle or knows about it. Similarly, our actions of kindness and goodness do not pass away and are independent of who knows about it (Lukas, 1994).

The old candle, the broken candle, a damaged candle, the bruised candle can still be lit, and it can still give light and warmth.

As we contemplate our candle, we may recall Frankl’s words:

What we radiate into the world, the waves that emanate from our being, that is what will remain of us when our being itself has long since passed away” (Frankl, 2019:45).

  • The Christmas Tree:

We may buy our tree or observe some that we can see around us on the streets, in the shop windows, or at the city square. A gorgeous, green tree may be erected and decorated in the mall or at the market.

What do we see?

The tree, a symbol of life, spirals toward the sky, ending in a high point symbolizing a climax or destination.

In may places, the branches of the tree bear rich decorations or tiny lights and ornaments. Every decoration is carefully placed. Sometimes, it takes some time to decide where one will place the larger ornaments, where one will place the smaller ones. Where one might hang a dented but highly prized piece, or where the most cherished ornaments will find their place. These decisions can represent the choices we make. The decorations are like the values that stand in relation to us. They shine brightly.

When we finish making our choices, and decide where we will place the ornaments, the lights, or the ribbons, we usually stand back and admire the tree. There it stands in all its glory. The decorations sparkle in the light, and they all rise, pointing up toward the top of the tree. Up high, closer to the tip, are the ornaments representing the higher values or universal values, such as the values of love, value of fidelity, the value of life, the dignity of a person, and so on. These values are under which the lower values are subsumed. The lower branches are closer to us. So are the decorations on them, which represent the values through which we actualize concrete meaning, the meaning of the moment that is within reach.

The tree is beautiful when all the decorations are in harmony with each other. From the concrete to the abstract, from the low to the high, from the meaning of the moment to ultimate meaning, the lights and special ornaments create a harmonious and appealing image of actions reflecting values just as decorations reflect our highest ideals, aspirations, and ideals.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French Jesuit and theologian once remarked: “…Remain true to yourself but move ever upward toward greater consciousness and greater love! At the summit your will find yourself united with all those who, from every direction, have made the same ascent. For everything that rises must converge.

Frankl reminds us that our actions are meaningful if they are in harmony with universal values that point to ultimate value and to ultimate meaning (Frankl, 2014).

As we contemplate the beauty of the Christmas tree, we may take a moment to reflect on his words of wisdom:

 “It is terrible to know that at every moment, I bear responsibility for the next: that every decision, from the smallest to the largest, is a decision for ‘all eternity;’ that in every moment I can actualize the possibility of the moment, of that particular moment or forfeit it. Every single moment contains thousands of possibilities—and I can only choose one of them to actualize it. But in making the choice, I have condemned all the others and sentenced them to ‘never being,’ and even this is for all eternity! But it is wonderful to know that the future—my own future and with it the future of the things and the people around me—is somehow, albeit to a very small extent, dependent on our decision in every moment. Everything I realize through them, or ‘bring into the world,’ as we have said, I save into reality thus protect from transience” (Frankl, 2014:106).

How do we decorate our tree, which values do we pace higher or lower? The choice is sometimes not easy to make. It may take some prayerful reflection to decide well.

  • Presents:

Several ideas of presents that we want to buy, or wrap may be going through our minds. Those of us who are really organized, already have some items ready and hidden, somewhere were little eyes and hands can not touch them, so they are a surprise

Presents represent our acts of kindness and good deeds, the warmth, and the love we share. Yet, while we have not given them, they are only possibilities. When we give them is the moment when they accomplish their purpose and bring smile to the face of someone.

As we contemplate presents, the ones we may give and those we may receive, we contemplate the gift of love and being loved.

Earlier, when we talked about the example of the candle, we talked about the uniqueness of each person and the value which is related to the community and serving the community, serving others. This is love that we give.

There is also a second path, says Frankl other than doing, and that exists in being, in being appreciated for who one is, which is a more passive way. This is love that we are given.

This is a more or less passive path, without any stiving, without any doing—“without doing anything for it”—in being loved, what someone otherwise had to strive for in his activity or employment now seems to fall into his or her lap; on this path of being loved we achieve what we would normally have to fight for and though our performance, but without needing to earn them: indeed one cannot force love; love is not a reward but a blessing. On the path of love a person thus receives by “grace” the things that he or she would have to strive for to obtain through action: the realization of both his or her uniqueness and individuality. For it is the nature of love that makes us see our loved one in their uniqueness and individuality” (Frankl, 2019:75-76).

Thus, as we contemplate presents, the presents that may want to give and the presents we may receive, we can ponder love. The mystery of love is that can not be demanded or commanded but it is an act of grace.

As the hustle and bustle of preparation is nearing, let us recall the greatest gifts that God gave. Let us prepare fitting gifts in our hearts:

Lord make me an instrument of your peace.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love,

Where there is injury, pardon;

Where there is doubt, faith;

Where there is despair, hope;

Where there is darkness, light;

And where id sadness, joy.”

O Divine Master, grant that I may

Not so much seek

To be consoled as to console,

To be understood as to understand,

To be loved, as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive.

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,

And it is in dying that we are born

To eternal life.” (Prayer reflecting the spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi)

  • The Star

The final symbol that I would like to ponder in relation to logotherapy is that of the Star of David and the Star of the Nativity. Christmas time in all traditions is a celebration of hope and good will. This hope and good will is fulfilled in our relationship with the Transcendent and the Divine who is not distant and far away but with us on our journey though the desert until we reach the Promised Land.

Perhaps these words are ever more significant today, during the suffering that we experience due to the COVID-19 pandemic than ever before.

Two millennia ago, in the small town of Bethlehem, Jesus was born. According to the Gospel of Luke 2:8-16:

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see-I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people” ‘to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly Host, praising God and saying, Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another: “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”

So, they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph and the child lying in the manger.”  

And at the time when Jesus was born, there was a star that marked the place of the manger, which led the wise men on their journey to Bethlehem:

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born the King of the Jews?’ For we observed his star at its rising and we have come to pay him homage” (Matthew, 2:1-2).

And following the star they found the baby and thy paid homage to him.

The star of Bethlehem heralded his birth. The angels sang. And on this holy night, God, yet again, confirmed his never-ending covenant.

God is all mighty, God is all knowing, God is all powerful. In comparison, we are weak, vulnerable, time limited and fragile. Like a speck of dust on the face of the earth. But God does not abandon his people. He has chosen an appointed time in history to manifest himself in relation to us, in a way that we could possibly relate to him most in a personal way.  

As we spoke of our finiteness, vulnerability, and fallibility, so we must also speak of suffering, and we must note the concept of the Tragic Triad of pain, guilt, and death that Frankl mentions in Man’s Search for Meaning (2014:129). Pain belongs to our vulnerability, death to our finality and mortality, and guilt to our fallibility.

Suffering uniquely colors our lives and represents an opportunity for expressing our individuality and uniqueness in not only how we experience it, but how we respond to it. Through creative, attitudinal, and experiential values, Frankl described the avenues through which suffering can be turned into a human achievement. The highest challenge, and the highest form of human achievement possible is to find meaning and to live meaning in suffering.

In Frankl’s words, “…In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice” (Frankl, 2014).

Tragic optimism (and by optimum Frankl meant “the best”), humanity at its best, in the face of tragedy is manifested in the human potential that (1) allows for turning suffering into a human accomplishment; (2) deriving from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better; and (3) deriving from life’s transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action” (Frankl, 2019:130).

As we ponder the Star of David, composed of two inverted triangles juxtaposed one on the other, and the star of the Nativity, let us remember that as our suffering is unique although shared with all humanity, the meaning-call that lies in it is also unique that we leave with all humanity.

At Christmas time, let us open our ears, hearts and minds to a call that transcends time and space, and which resonates on our inner selves: “We are wonderfully designed, eternally loved, and awaited!”

To close with Frankl’s thoughts:

It is only in the image and likeness of God that we understand ourselves (Frankl, 1951).

It is only to the extent to which we transcend ourselves that we actualize meaning” (Frankl, 1972).


Frankl, V. E. (1951). Logos und Existenz. Vienna, Austria: Amandus Verlag.

Frankl, V. E. (1972). Der Wille zum Sinn. Vienna: Huber.

Frankl, V. E. (2014). Man’s search for meaning. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, Boston.

Frankl, V. E. (2019). Yes to life in spite of everything. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Lukas, E. (1994). Alles fught sich und erfullt sich. Stuttgart: Quell.

Lukas, E. (2020). Living Logotherapy. Logotherapy Principles and Methods. Bamberg: Elisabeth Lukas Archives.

Klingberg, H. Jr. (2001). When life calls out to us. The love and life of Viktor and Elly Frankl. New York, NY: Doubleday.

Marshall, M. & Marshall, E. (2012). Logotherapy Revisited. Ottawa, ON: Ottawa Institute of Logotherapy.

Marshall, M. & Marshall, E. (2022). Viktor E. Frankl’s Logotherapy and Existential Analysis. Currently in press. Ottawa, ON: Ottawa Institute of Logotherapy.

Bible references are based on the Holy Bible, NRSV (1989). Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

Quotations by Teilhard de Chardin, Theresa of Avila, and the poem attributed to St. Francis and are in the public domain.

*This presentation was prepared for the Christmas series of AMES, Alianza Mundial para Encuentros con Sentido, and presented virtually on December 2, 2021.