Do you have a wreath hanging on your front door?
Wreathes are very common in our area. Almost everyone hangs wreathes during the winter holidays, but many have an assortment of wreathes to hang at different seasons of the year.
Wreathes date far back into our cultural history, beginning, like so many things, in the ancient Mediterranean world. We know that in ancient Persia the wealthy and well born wore wreathes on their heads, often made from fabric or gold, and decorated with precious stones.
The custom in ancient Greece was to make wreathes from Bay Laurel and other plant materials. These were a symbol of achievement. Winners of athletic contests were honored with a wreath made of laurel. Musicians, craftsmen, poets, and political leaders were also awarded with laurel wreathes for special achievements. Many plants had associations with specific gods and goddesses of the Greek pantheon, and so wreathes made from these specific plants were believed to carry the special blessings of that deity. Apollo was associated with laurel, Dionysus with ivy, and Zeus with oak.
Wreathes migrated into Roman culture like so many things Greek, and became important symbols of wealth, achievement and status. They were also used annually in the celebration of the holiday Saturnalia, which is where so many of our Yule and Christmas customs, such as bringing evergreen trees inside during the winter, originate. Wreathes were both worn on the head, like a diadem, and also brought into the home as decoration. Wreathes, and other evergreens, were used during the winter solstice celebrations for decoration inside and out.
In fact, wreathes were made and enjoyed in most corners of the ancient world, including China. The wreath is a universal symbol, whether made from laurel, ivy, evergreen branches, holly, flowers, fabric, or precious metal.
The wreath was, and is, a symbol of the cyclic nature of our world. It symbolizes the sun, the turning of the year, and the eternal turning of the planets around the sun. The return of the sun after winter solstice was an important aspect of Saturnalia, and of the festivities celebrated by followers of the Persian Mithra during Dies Natalis of Sol Invictus, or the birthday of the unconquerable sun on December 25 of each year, just after the winter solstice.
The wreath, commonly made with evergreens, is a symbol of eternal life. It is an assurance that, “life goes on” through good times and bad. Although individuals come and go, life itself endures. As the custom of wreath making spread into Europe with the Roman Empire.
Within the new faith of Christianity, wreathes were adapted to tabletop use for the season of Advent. Candles were added to the wreath to mark each of the Sundays during Advent, with a candle in the middle for Christmas Day. Families still make Advent wreathes and enjoy lighting them each night at the dinner table today. The four outer candles anchor the four points of a cross, or the four cardinal points. The center candle also symbolizes the central point from which all of creation originates.
Harvest wreathes made with wheat also became common in Europe. These were symbols of a rich harvest and abundance, and were left up as decoration for much of the year. In summer, wreathes were often made and decorated with herbs, especially evergreen herbs such as rosemary and bay.
In medieval Europe wreathes were made which symbolized a particular family, to hang on their front door . They were used in place of house numbers to identify the family’s home. Items were added to wreathes which were in some way symbolic of an individual or family. These hung year round and were refreshed as needed.
Wreathes came with the early American colonists to Colonial Virginia. Williamsburg has a rich tradition of wreath making for Christmas decoration. Every building in Colonial Williamsburg is decorated with a beautifully hand made wreath. Although evergreens such as pine, magnolia, cedar, and holly are often used, these unique wreathes are decorated with apples, oranges, peanuts, feathers, cotton, sea shells, nuts and berries, pineapples, and pomegranates.
They are symbols of abundance and well being. Wreathes hung on the doors of businesses often include items symbolic of that business, such as pewter cups, pipes, and fabric. These special wreathes are known as “della Robbia” style wreathes.
Many residents of Williamsburg, and in all of Virginia, follow this custom at home. Although many of us still make or buy evergreen wreathes at Christmas, we also make everlasting wreathes with grape vines or straw, and decorate them with fruit, flowers, birds, small toys, shells, nuts, and cones.
This is a lovely custom, and so easy to do. The wreathes I hung yesterday began as ready made grapevine wreathes purchased at a craft store. I have made many grapevine wreathes over the years beginning with vines from wild grape and honeysuckle, but these were purchased. If you have kudzu growing nearby it is also an excellent material for making the basic wreath.
Everything on this wreath is hot glued into place. There are Lotus pods, oyster shells, moss, and Deodora Cedar cones. When I first made these wreathes a year ago, the lotus pods were too dark and heavy. I gilded a few to brighten the wreathes and give a more festive look in the weeks before Christmas. Grape vine makes it easy to tuck items in among the vines. I could easily add Eucalyptus sprigs, feather, silk roses, or other items by weaving them into the wreath. Many of the items had come loose by last spring, so I collected everything and stored it over summer. Yesterday I re-glued and refreshed both wreathes so they are ready for another holiday season.
So if you have a wreath on your door, good for you. You are welcoming the coming holidays from Thanksgiving through the New Year in festive spirit. If you haven’t hung your wreath yet, perhaps you’ll consider making your own this year from items which speak to your own interests and sense of beauty. If you have a garden, you might already have what you need close at hand. All it takes is your own attention to what is growing nearby, and a little creativity, to craft a beautiful wreath for your own home and family this season.
All Photos by Woodland Gnome