In anthropology, symbols occupy a foundational role in understanding people (Holy Semiosis, Batman!). Symbols are at the heart of being human, or as Geertz (in one of my favorite quotes of all time) argues:
The extreme generality, diffuseness, and variability of (hu)man’s innate (that is genetically programmed) response capacities means that without the assistance of cultural patterns (i.e. symbols-my addition) (w)e would be functionally incomplete, not merely a talented ape who had, like some underprivileged child, unfortunately been prevented from realizing his full potentialities, but a kind of formless monster with neither sense of direction nor power of self-control, a chaos of spasmodic impulses and vague emotions [1973:99]*
If the lack of something makes us formless monsters, then it’s pretty important.
However, in popular usage, symbol is often used to denote either ceremonial, or just plain old fruffy acts that don’t really matter (here, I’m thinking of ground breakings for new buildings with golden shovels, or ship christenings with broken bottles--”symbolic gestures”) or explicitly and obviously value laden things like American flags and crucifixes.
In an anthropological sense, symbols and meaning are bound up in so much more as the vast majority of a human’s day is full of symbols--interpreting the world through frameworks of what everything means.
I’ve begun to explicitly discuss the differences between these two usages to highlight the specificity of the anthropological use (I’ve got to reign myself in from getting super-meta discussing multiple meanings of meaning when talking to freshmen). The key word that helps immeasurably with this is meaning. When I introduce this word, the two uses become nearly opposites. In its popular use, symbols don’t seem to mean much, but anthropologically they mean everything.
1973 Religion as a Cultural System. In The Interpretation of Cultures, pp. 87-125. Basic Books.
*Some of the parenthetical additions added for gender neutral language.