Its Meaning, History and Types
One of the most popular holiday decorations is the Christmas Wreath. You will see Christmas Wreaths used in many different ways and in many different settings. It is common to see them on the stairway, hanging on walls or doors, or even as a centerpiece on a table. From individual homes to large corporate offices, Christmas Wreaths are a pleasant sight throughout the holiday season. But why do we use wreaths in our holiday decorations, and where did this tradition begin?
What is the Meaning of the Christmas Wreath?
The term "Wreath", curiously enough, is linked to our word "Wrist", with both terms forming a continuous physical circular shape. It also came from Middle English's "wrethe", meaning a twisted band or ring of leaves or flowers in a garland.
Wreaths have been used symbolically for centuries. The circle or ring shape is symbolic of eternity or eternal life, because the shape has no beginning or end. Back in ancient Rome, this symbol became so powerful that people used decorative wreaths as a sign of victory. Some believe that this is where the hanging of wreaths on doors came from.
Putting plants into the symbolic circular shape symbolizes the strength of life overcoming the forces of winter. Wreaths and other decorations during long winters often consisted of whatever natural materials looked attractive at this bleak time of year. People used candles, fires, evergreens, hollies, berries, and forced blossoms to hold on to the promise of spring.
A Brief History of Holly and the Christmas Wreath
The ancient Druids are the first society in known history to have worn sprigs of holly and mistletoe. These priests of yesteryear believed that holly, with its glossy, shiny prickly leaves of green adorned with red berries, remained green all year due to their magical properties. The Druids considered Holly sacred. Many speculate the holly berries have given us our green and red colors of Christmas.
Holly and Berries, often used to make Christmas Wreaths
Combining the symbolism of the wreath with the believed magical powers of Holly, the Romans exchanged Holly Wreaths as gifts. Once Christianity took hold in Rome, Holly Wreaths became Christmas Wreaths as part of popular holiday decorations, but mistletoe was considered "pagan" because of its mystic properties. In fact, in 575 A.D., a German Catholic Bishop forbade all Christmas greens and condemned them as "dangerous and heathen". Churches did not see their likeness again for centuries.
In the 16th century, the word "Holly" appeared in writing for the first time, used by Shakespeare. By the 17th century, holly had become a grander part of Christmas celebrations, the Christmas Wreath, and holiday decorations once again. The shape of the wreath symbolized the crown of thorns put atop the head of Jesus Christ, as well as the resurrection and eternal life. Holly and Christmas Wreaths came to stand for peace, joy, and contentment.
To add color to Christmas Wreaths, colonists used pomegranates and other colorful fruits. Pomegranates, in particular, indicated wealth. Other items used to decorate Christmas Wreaths include seashells from nearby beaches, pinecones, and imported items. The colonists celebrated the Christmas season for 12 consecutive days (this is where we get the "12 Days of Christmas"). At the end of the 12th day, on January 5th, the homeowners took down their Christmas Wreaths and other holiday decorations. They removed the fruit and added them to the holiday feast, enjoying the bounty of summer in the heart of winter.
Types of Christmas Wreaths
While there are many designs and styles of Christmas Wreaths, they mainly fall into two categories, the Decorative Christmas Wreath and the Advent Wreath.
The Decorative Christmas Wreath is made simply for crafts and holiday decorations, similar in use to Christmas Lights. These have a different purpose than other types of wreaths. Wreaths give a house or office the "finishing touch" to the holiday decorations. Their symbolism and look just give the area the little extra Christmas feeling. Decorative Christmas Wreaths are usually made of evergreen leaves, holly, or other materials which symbolize life throughout tough winters.
The Advent Wreath
The Advent Wreath is a tradition that is a part of folklore from centuries ago. The Pre-Christian Germanic people during the cold December darkness of Eastern Europe, gathered wreaths and lighted fires as signs of hope in the coming spring and renewed light. The 16th century Catholics and Protestants used wreaths as symbols to celebrate their hope in Christ, the everlasting Light. From Germany, the use of the Advent Wreath spread to other parts of the world.
Traditionally, the Advent Wreath is made of four violet or rose candles in a circle of evergreens with a fifth candle in the middle. Each day at home, the candles are lighted before the evening meal, one candle for the first week, and then another each succeeding week until December 25th. The last candle is the middle candle of the wreath. The lighting of this candle takes place on Christmas Eve and represents the birth of Jesus Christ.
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