Oh, the wonderous circle of joy. Hanging a wreath on a door or a wall is almost as essential to decorating for yuletide as setting up a Christmas tree. Actually, wreaths are more than just decorations, and I thought I would share some of the rich history behind them.
The word wreath comes from the word “writhen” that was an old English word meaning “to writhe” or “to twist.” The oldest historical origination came from the Greco-Roman era where wreaths were hung on doors as a sign of victory and achievement or a person’s occupation and status in society. Women would wear them as headdresses as a symbol of pride, and also donned them during special occasions such as weddings. Additionally, the victors of Panhellenic sporting events in ancient Greece were given laurel wreaths. As you are probably aware, this tradition is still being used to this day during the Olympic games in which the medals are engraved with springs of laurel.
The custom of the more modern wreath began in the 16th century among northern and eastern Europeans—with Germans commonly credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition to usher in Christmastide and Epiphanytide. During this period, pruning the tree was a part of the preparation process. Limbs were often cut off in an attempt to make the tree more uniform in shape or to fit into a room. Instead of throwing the pieces of greenery away, the Europeans wove the excess into wreaths adorned with pinecones and various colored ribbons. These people were living in a time when everything was used until it was gone. “The tree gave birth to the wreath.”
Christmas wreaths are made by twisting or bending evergreen branches into a large circle which are then enriched with a variety of treasures . Such wreaths originally served as Christmas tree ornaments, and not as the standalone decoration we’re familiar with today. They were formed into a wheel-like shape partially for convenience—it was simple to hang a circle onto a branch—but the shape was also significant as a representation of divining perfection. It symbolized eternity and the creation of life, as the shape has no end.
Evergreens are commonly used in the construction of the wreath due to their hardiness throughout the harsh winters, and they denote strength as well as immortality, and were a symbol of power, resilience, and hope. A German Lutheran pastor named Johann Hinrich Wichern is often given credit for turning the wreath into a symbol of the Advent, and lighting candles of various sizes and colors in a circle as Christmas approached. Christmas wreaths in the Catholic tradition had four candles—three of which were purple, symbolizing penance and expectation, and one of red or pink to represent the coming day and the joy of new life. Similar to Catholic customs, traditional Pagan wreaths were also evergreen circles consisting of four candles, representing the elements of Earth, Wind, Fire and Water. These wreaths were used in rituals that were meant to ensure the continuance of the circle of life.
Inasmuch as wreaths started with humble beginnings, some were even used to commemorate the harvest of the autumnal season, the wreaths of today are widespread in popularity and are a metaphor for beautiful decorations for your home or office that really show off your true holiday cheer. Spread that holiday spirit and buy a Christmas wreath for yourself or someone you love, or spend a few minutes making one as I showed you in my previous blog.
Thank you for indulging me on this trip down history lane. I am your BoomerGal, Connie, wishing you a wreath-full of memories this holiday season.
Contributing editorial content:
Gerry Wilson, Wilson Enterprises, Wilson, MI
Ace Collins, author of Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas.
Kat Moon at TIME, Inc.
Disclaimer: I subscribe to no authorship of this article, other than to have had the distinct privilege of assembling bits and pieces of historical information from the internet. The purpose was to share insight into what is documented as chronicled accounts of the evolution of the Christmas wreath. I trust you enjoyed the reading as much as I did researching it.