I seem to go round and round on this. My conundrum, like its source, is never-ending. I love wreaths. Certainly they are very natural, very creative, and very beautiful. However, for me, the wreaths we see decorating homes and businesses have an interest apart from any religious significance that might be attached to them. The tradition of wreaths predates Christianity. Their precursor came in ancient times. A head decoration, called a diadem, was worn to indicate royalty or importance. It could have been as simple as an adorned cloth, but eventually the style morphed into gold coverings, jeweled crowns and more ornate incarnations. These led to the use of wreaths as headdresses.
In Greek and Roman times, wreaths were used to symbolize victory, with Olympic winners crowned with a laurel wreath. The genesis of this practice came from a mythological (and misogynist) victory of sorts. Zeus’s son Apollo, god of life and light, fell in love with the nymph Daphne. He pursued her and she fled, finally asking the river god Peneus for help to escape Apollo’s intentions. Peneus’s solution was to turn Daphne into a laurel tree; when Apollo found her in wood form, he made a laurel wreath to wear evermore. Guess she lost on both accounts, having been turned into a tree and then worn for ornamentation.
Other trees were noted for their use as wreaths. Oak wreaths came in vogue after Zeus became known to make decisions while resting in oak groves. These were associated with bringing wisdom. Holly wreaths were used for solstice celebrations. I enjoy making wreaths out of bittersweet vines, though I always remove all berries so as not to spread this invasive creeper.
For agricultural cultures, harvest wreaths were popular to protect against crop failures and plagues. These incorporated wheat, fruit, nuts and other harvested grains, and were traditionally woven with red and white woolen threads. In desperate times, harvest wreaths were brought to a priest to be blessed.
The use of evergreens for wreaths was and is popular. With their staying power, evergreens symbolize strength, because they could last through even the most difficult winter and were indicative of the power of life to endure through darkness and challenge. On a deeper level, immortality was implied.
Christianity brought its own wreath uses and stories. Advent wreaths, with their red and white candles, educated others about Christmas and prepared for the coming of Christ. Their evergreen boughs represented everlasting life, and the round shape represented a complete god with no beginning or end.
Wreaths were also used at funerals and for memorials, for the same reason: the allusion to a circle of eternal life. In early days, virgin martyrs were given white wreaths for purity. In pagan rituals, wreaths were given a more down-to-earth role to symbolize fertility.
Nor are wreaths used only during this holiday season. How intriguing is the May Pole wreath, which sits atop the May Pole? The tradition is to make a wreath in the early morning with dew-covered flowers. The dew was believed to give the wreath magical powers that dissipated as the dew evaporated. The wreath was placed on the top of the May Pole, and unmarried men raced to capture the wreath and gain some of its magical powers to woo their mate.
A fine poem that explains the meaning behind the greenery at this time of year (and why wreaths are left up after Christmas) goes as follows:
“Symbolizing eternal home, the wreath goes ‘round and ‘round,
And where it starts or ends cannot be found.
Woven of things that grow
for life, and hung for holiday delight
The wreath must be left in place from Advent through Twelfth Night.”
Even with my penchant for wreaths, perhaps the best Yuletide decoration is, as someone else once said, being wreathed in smiles.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.