As you drive through your hometown this holiday season, you will likely notice familiar evergreen Christmas wreaths hanging on the front doors of homes and businesses. Many are not aware of the rich history associated with these beloved ornamental symbols. To examine the symbolism, history, and present-day use of the wreath, Justin Nolan, an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Arkansas, provides a brief overview of the origins and implementation of the Christmas wreath. Having taught cultural anthropology for two decades, Justin Nolan is fascinated by how the rich history and folklore of our well-loved traditions enlightens our present-day experience, understanding, and appreciation of them.
Wreaths have been used as a decorative Christmas symbol for hundreds of years. Justin Nolan explains that people have been using wreaths to adorn their homes both inside and out since the 16th century and are considered a symbol of growth and everlasting life. It is important to note that the wreath itself dates back to ancient Greece and Rome, where members of Greco-Roman society would hand-make ring-shaped wreaths using fresh tree leaves, twigs, small fruit and flowers. These were often worn as headdresses, and represented ones occupation, rank, achievements and status. However, as Justin Nolan explains, it was not termed a ‘wreath’ in English until the 15th century.
The word wreath has the same root as the old English writhe, meaning ‘something twisted’ — hence writhing in pain. Its first recorded use was around 1450. The custom of bringing evergreen trees inside the home during the Winter season began in the 16th century among Northern and Eastern Europeans; however, Germans are commonly credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition. During this period, Justin Nolan explains that pruning the tree was a part of the preparation process. Efforts were made to ‘shape’ the tree more uniformly, often triangularly; accordingly, the tree came to represent the Holy Trinity. During this process, instead of throwing the greenery away, the Europeans used to weave the excess material into wreaths. This tradition originates in a time where nothing was wasted, and the use-value of all harvested materials was widely known.
Wreaths and Christianity
The wreath is made of evergreens, most often pine branches and holly. Justin Nolan explains that evergreen trees were a species looked upon with admiration in Northern and Eastern Europe, as unlike most deciduous trees, their leaves endured the harshness of winter. The wreath has a significant meaning for the season, as its circular shape represents eternity, and from a Christian religious perspective, n unending circle of life. When holly is used in a wreath, it has been used to symbolize the thorns on Jesus’ crown when he was crucified. Interestingly enough, such wreaths often served as Christmas tree ornaments, and not as the standalone decorations we are familiar with today.
Also, of importance in Christian tradition is the embodiment of faith in evergreen wreaths more generally. Many Christians in Europe placed a candle on the wreath to symbolize the light Jesus brought into the world, further extending the conveyance of everlasting life, renewal, and resurrection. Four candles were placed on the wreath, one for each week of Advent. Many of these traditions involving evergreens were adopted en masse at the beginning of the 19th century in Europe, particularly in Britain and Ireland. Perhaps consequently, Americans adopted the tradition and perpetuated the growth of the wreath as a festive artifact of the Christmas season.