The wreath went up on the front door a few days ago, replacing the three pieces of Indian corn tied with ribbons I’d hung there for fall.
It’s lovely and full, with evergreen, holly and pine cones entwined around a base of twigs. Fairly traditional, but with a modern feel to it.
While presumably the corn I’d hung represents the harvest and pays homage to the bounty of Thanksgiving, I wasn’t sure where the tradition of the wreath came from. I do know that these traditions add depth to the holidays – knowing that I’m doing something that’s been done for centuries by millions of people before me. But, like so many of the things we do over the holidays, we do them because we always have, and don’t really know why.
Turns out the wreath has a storied past, one that incorporates Greek, Egyptian and Roman history as well as Catholic and even Druidic traditions.
Starting with the shape, a wreath, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, is a circular garland “that traditionally indicates honour or celebration… In ancient Greece, wreaths, usually made of olive, pine, laurel, celery or palm, were awarded to athletes victorious in the Olympic Games and as prizes to poets and orators. Young lovers in ancient Greece hung wreaths on their lovers’ doorways as a sign of affection.”
The idea of the circle being unbroken was a theme that recurred over and over again. It makes sense to me – the tradition comes full circle every year, every generation.
Another place the circle was referenced was at Catholic Education, where it’s noted that: “The (Advent) wreath is made of various evergreens, signifying continuous life. Even these evergreens have a traditional meaning which can be adapted to our faith: The laurel signifies victory over persecution and suffering; pine, holly, and yew, immortality; and cedar, strength and healing. Holly also has a special Christian symbolism: The prickly leaves remind us of the crown of thorns, and one English legend tells of how the cross was made of holly. The circle of the wreath, which has no beginning or end, symbolizes the eternity of God, the immortality of the soul, and the everlasting life found in Christ. Any pine cones, nuts, or seedpods used to decorate the wreath also symbolize life and resurrection.”
Which explains the pine cones on my own wreath.
Holly was apparently used by the Druids, too. According to the website, Irish Culture and Customs, holly has been used in Yuletide celebrations for almost two thousand years.
“To the Druids, it was holly’s evergreen nature that made it special. They believed that it remained green to help keep the earth beautiful when the other trees shed their leaves. It was also their custom to wear it in their hair (there’s the hair garland or crown wreath again) when they ventured into the forests to watch the priests collecting mistletoe. Holly was also once used for protection, and in ancient times, people would decorate doors and windows with it, in hopes that it would capture, or at least dissuade, any evil spirits before they could enter the house.”
Still part of the symbolism of using a wreath is simply celebratory. As Margaret Visser writes in her book The Rituals of Dinner “In ancient Greece and Rome, a banquet was simply no banquet unless everybody present wore a wreath. The purpose of crowns was partly like that of paper party hats: they signified festivity. … Wearing the wreath symbolized completeness and integrity. “
At those feasts, scent went hand in hand with festivity and wearing a wreath: “Ancient Egyptian frescoes show us dinner guests with large cones of scented fat fixed to the tops of their heads; these were designed to melt during the feast, an drizzle deliciously down over the diners’ faces and bodies,” Visser writes.
Where things went with the party after that, I’m not sure I want to hazard a guess.