The History of the Wreath
Have you ever wondered about the historical significance behind your wreath?
The wreath hanging on the door at Christmas time is an unmistakable symbol of festivity. As our streets become lined with freshly adorned doors, we know that the Christmas season is upon us. But what is the history behind this tradition?
The wreath comes from the old English word “writhen” – to twist. The etymology of the word relates to the twisting nature of the woven greenery but it can also relate to the woven cultural customs that have combined to form this tradition over millennia. Through ancient civilisation, religious symbolism and contemporary, secular reinvention, the wreath has evolved and come to exist as we know it today.
Below is a compiled list of histories that have contributed to the prevalence of the wreath in the modern day:
Yule, the Winter Solstice and Circles
(From 10,000 BC)
From the Vikings and the Nordic Pagans to the ancient Neolithic peoples of the stone age, the shortest day (winter solstice) has been a milestone in western culture and period for celebration for over 12,000 years. From this day came many traditions, including the beginnings of the wreath.
When the weather gets cold, there is fear of harvest failure, a fear that warmth won’t come again and a fear that the darkness is here to stay. The winter solstice marks the moment when the days start to stretch out once more and hope is restored. The cultural significance of the shortest day in our planet’s cycle has been noted as a time for reflection on the cyclical nature of earth and life upon it. The circular shape of the wreath echoes this sentiment.
In Viking tradition, on the eve of the winter solstice, giant “sunwheels” would be set on fire to encourage the return of the sun once more. Looking even further back into European cultural history, archaeological finds have discoved many “sunwheel” symbols as far back as the Bronze Age. Perhaps one of the largest and most notable examples of the prehistoric cultural tradition of these is Stonehenge, built over 4000 years ago to frame the setting of the sun on the winter solstice. What could be better inspiration for the circular shape of the wreath than this?
The Wicca, Pagan and Druidic traditions all incorporated circles into their celebration of Yule – sometimes in the form of ritual stone circles on the ground, like Stonehenge but sometimes the symbol of the circle also entered into the home in other ways. There was a custom to use evergreen leaves to fashion a circle to display, this circle of greenery was symbolic of on-going life and the evergreen branches served as a reminder that life continues throughout the winter. This explains why evergreen branches are still a recognisable trait of wreaths today.
Roman & Greek Saturnalia
(From 800 BC – 1200AD )
In Ancient Greek and Roman culture, the festival of Saturnalia or their harvest festival (as Saturn was the God of sowing), was celebrated by hanging wreaths of greenery on doors as sacrifices to the gods. The sacrificial wreaths were displayed until the winter solstice as a way to pray to the gods for a successful harvest in the coming year. This points to where the custom of displaying the wreath on the front door originated.
(From 0AD – Today)
After the death of Christ, the wreath was adopted into the Christian tradition and with that came new symbolism. While still a celebration of life, instead of the harvest, the circle marked the celebration of Advent and coming of the baby Jesus. The Advent wreath contained four or five candles, each one to be lit on every Sunday leading up to Christmas (each purple), and one to be lit on the day that celebrated Christ’s birth (usually white).
Alongside the celebration, in Christian tradition, the wreath also stands as a reminder of the sacrifices that were made by Jesus in his death on the cross. To reflect this, Christians believe the wreath should contain the following elements:
Holly, to represent the crown of thorns Jesus wore as he carried the cross. It is also an evergreen plant to represent the on-going love of God.
Red berries, representative of the blood Jesus.
The Wreath in Modern Society
Whether you’re a Christian, pagan, a person with whom the message resonates or you simply like dolling up your door, this historical tradition, like the festive period itself, is a melting pot of different cultural interpretations for wintery celebration.
The wreath in the modern day serves as a symbol of community and welcome that resonates with everyone – whether you choose a traditional wreath or one strewn with baubles and ribbon. So, when you are hanging up your wreath this Christmas, take a moment to reflect on the journey this symbolic object has taken through history to end up on your door.