by Jean Stratton

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Holiday Wreaths Welcome the Season And Add Color, Creativity and Cheer

The holiday wreath at the door is a sign of welcome. It welcomes visitors to the house, it welcomes the approach of Christmas, and it adds welcome color to short December days.

All of these symbols are part of the origin, history, and rich tradition of wreaths, which date back to times long past.

In the ancient culture of Persia, Partha, and Greece, the wreath was known as a diadem, from the Greek word diadema or "thing bound around." A diadem worn on the head or hat was at that time a symbol of royal and spiritual significance. The fabric headbands were sometimes adorned with jewels.

As early as 776 B.C., wreaths made of laurel leaves were used to crown victors in the Olympic Games in Greece. Later when the games moved to different cities, each host city would award head garlands made of branches of local trees.

Later, it became the custom in Rome to crown military and athletic heroes with a diadem of laurels. In time, this laurel crown was embellished with gold and jewels and became the prototype corona, or crown.

Some believe that the Romans used decorative wreaths as a sign of victory and that the hanging of wreaths on doors originated from this practice. It is also possible that celebration spectators hung the leafy headbands on their walls as souvenirs.

Holiday Sight

For some, the wreath symbolizes the strength of life overcoming the forces of winter; for others, it is a colorful decorative addition to the holiday festivities. Over the centuries, it has become a welcome holiday sight, adding color and enjoyment to the season.

In addition to the festive and decorative aspect of the wreath, it has a spiritual significance within the Christian tradition during the Advent season, which includes the four Sundays preceding Christmas. It is a time of special preparation in anticipation of Christmas.

Over the years, the tradition of the Advent Wreath has evolved, possibly arising from the ancient custom of weaving greens in and out of the spokes of a wagon wheel. Others believe the Advent Wreath was inspired by the Swedish Crown of Lights, a candle-bearing crown worn by young Swedish girls on St. Lucia's Day. St. Lucia was a young Christian martyr, who gave her entire dowry to the poor.

Still others point to the origin of the Advent Wreath in the folk practices of the pre-Christian Germanic people, who during the cold December darkness of Eastern Europe, gathered wreaths of evergreen and lighted fires as signs of hope for a coming spring and renewed light. Christians kept these popular traditions alive, and by the 16th Century, Catholics and Protestants throughout Germany used these symbols to celebrate their Advent hope in Christ. From Germany, the use of the Advent wreath spread to other parts of the Christian world.

Traditionally, the wreath is made of four candles in a circle of evergreens with a fifth candle in the middle. Each Sunday, a candle at one of the "corners" is lighted. Three are purple, the liturgical color for the season of Advent, and one a pale rose, which is lighted on the third Sunday. A white candle, placed in the center of the wreath, is lighted on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, to represent the birth of Jesus.

The Advent Wreath is rich in symbolism, explains the Rev. Chase Hunt. "Its circular shape suggests God's eternal love and care, which knows no bounds – no beginning and no end. The evergreens represent the continuation of life which is ever fresh and new as it springs forth from a deepening faith and expectant hope. The candles, with their increasing light from week to week are symbolic of God's light that overcomes darkness and illumines all of life through the One who said, 'I am the light of the world.'

Great Meaning

"In the churches I served, individuals or families would come forward during the service to light the candle for that particular week. As the weeks passed and the light increased, you could feel the sense of expectation and excitement grow. The Advent Wreaths had great meaning both for the young people and the adult members of our congregations."

Some families also hold ceremonies focusing on the Advent Wreath in their homes, points out Suzanne Hunt.

"On the four Sunday evenings before Christmas, after the lighting of the Advent candles during the morning service, our family would conduct our own Advent service. Our boys helped to make the wreath from greens in the garden, we went together to purchase the candles, and each one in the family had a part in the service. The quiet beautiful service around the family table helped to push aside the holiday commercialism and place the true meaning of Christmas in a central position."

Throughout history, wreaths have been made of various materials, evergreens, of course, being central, but also herbs, dried flowers, fruits and berries. Many aromatic herbs are appropriate for holiday wreaths and table centerpieces, and four have Biblical links with Christmas. English pennyroyal was said to have been placed in the manger on the night of the Christ child's birth and burst into bloom the moment the child was born.

According to folklore, rosemary will bring happiness for the coming year to anyone who sniffs it on Christmas Eve. During the flight into Egypt, it is said that Mary spread her child's garments on a rosemary plant to dry. The flowers, originally white, turned blue and acquired the unique scent they have today.

Another legend claims that at midnight on January 5 – the "old Christmas Eve" –rosemary plants will simultaneously burst into flower in celebration of Christmas. Rosemary plants add fragrance to holiday wreaths, as does wild thyme. This pungent herb was thought to be collected from the fields outside of Bethlehem to make a soft bed for Mary during the birth of her child.

Wild Lavender

The Virgin Mary is also said to have dried her newborn's swaddling clothes by spreading them on a bed of wild lavender. The herb is often incorporated into wreaths and centerpieces.

Other legends and traditions have been passed down in a more secular vein. For example, a wreath made of holly and mistletoe might be intended to shelter a home from the spirits of cold and winter. A wreath of birch given by a woman to a man meant she accepted his advances as a suitor!

The tradition of the Christmas wreath was brought from Europe to America by the early settlers. An abundance of wreath staples, such as greens from pine, spruce, and cedar trees, was available, as well as boxwood, hemlock, mountain laurel, holly, mistletoe, and princess pine.

Other Christmas wreaths used corn husks, dried grasses, the orange and scarlet pods of bittersweet, moss, dried fruits, and the red berries of black alder for decorating the Christmas wreath. A purely American Christmas wreath custom began in the Williamsburg, Virginia settlement where Christmas wreaths and Christmas garlands of evergreen were decorated with fruits and vegetables.

In the 1800s, wagons filled with aromatic wreath greens announced the beginning of the Christmas season. The traditional wreath on the front door became a gesture of friendship and a welcoming. Most often, a Christmas wreath of fresh evergreens topped by a large red bow greeted visitors. Inside, Christmas wreaths often decorated rooms and hallways.

The 1900s saw the introduction of plastic artificial Christmas wreath foliage and greens. Plastic holly, evergreen, and berries were the most realistic of these early reproductions for Christmas wreaths. With the advent of silk flowers and greenery, the quality of the realistic-looking replicas of Christmas wreath decor was greatly enhanced.

Technical advances in the manufacturing process of the artificial Christmas wreaths have created an endless supply of colors and varieties of wreath decor.

Natural Ingredients

Today, wreaths often reflect the personality and spirit of those who make or display them. In addition to greens, natural materials, such as dried herbs and flowers are often incorporated into the finished product. Anyone, of course, can go to the nearest nursery and buy a plain, decorated, custom-made, or artificial wreath. The more creative, ambitious, and determined among us opt to do it themselves.

The do-it-yourselfers not only have a sense of accomplishment after completing their project, but have created something especially meaningful, particularly if it is to be a gift.

One amateur, but experienced wreath-maker of five years, describes her reasons for expending the time, energy, and effort in what is not an easy undertaking.

"I saw a TV program on wreath making, and I thought, 'I bet I can do that!' My first wreath was not as good as they are now. It takes practice.

"I like to be creative and to see if I can, in fact, do it. I get a real sense of achievement and pleasure from it. Making something rather than buying is much more fun, and I think, appreciated."

It is a time-consuming project, she adds. "I have to decide what greenery to use, gather it, select the right size pieces, make proper bunches, connect them to the frame, and then wire the whole wreath together. I use boxwood from our yard, and you have to look at each piece very carefully. Sometimes, I select everything, do the wiring and then do the decorating the next day. Decorations include bows, ribbons, pine cones, berries, etc. Actually making the wreath takes about three hours."

Making sure all the necessary materials are at hand is very important, she points out. "You need a wreath form – there are wire and plastic, and I've decided on plastic, which is easier to work with and doesn't slip as much as wire. Also, I switched to a smaller wreath form and a somewhat different design, which seems easier to work with.

"You also need floral wire, wire cutters, gardening shears, and a paper bag full of greenery. It makes a mess because the greens are dirty and you have to cut them to the right size you need.

Final Adjustments

"What is especially challenging is making the bunches and connecting them to the form so they don't slip around. Also, the closer together they are, the better. It gets really tough toward the end because you have no room to connect the greens after going all the way around. You have to squeeze it in and you always cut your fingers! Or you could damage one of your bunches.

"You always have to do final adjustments, especially when you add bows," she adds. "That is difficult, too, because if the wreath is made correctly (very tightly), you have no space to tie anything on!

"But when it is finished, I am always really pleased. I guess it has become a tradition for me now. I enjoy doing it, and it does make a special gift."

That opinion is echoed by another amateur and enthusiastic wreath-maker (who is also a professional singer), and who specializes in indoor decorative wreaths, particularly appropriate as centerpieces. Gathering the materials was a full-time job, she reports, when she first began making wreaths years ago. This do-it-yourselfer is definitely not faint-of-heart!

"When I was touring with the Robert Shaw Chorale, the driver of the truck which carried the portable organ and some of the larger instruments kept a large carton for my pine cone collection. Along the way, as we toured from New York state down the coast through the deep South, I gathered cones the size of small pineapples! Also, long delicate cones of white pine, sturdy long cones of Norway spruce, small cones of blue spruce, and tiny cones of hemlock.

"I also found sweet gum balls, the red-brown 'ping-pong balls' that had to be opened with tiny beer can openers! There were other seed pods too, including milkweed pods and some that looked like birds' mouths opened and ready to eat. Horse chestnuts or buckeyes and acorns were also welcome additions to my collection of nature's castoffs.

Dry and Shiny

"By the end of the tour, my cones were dry and ready to varnish," she continues. "On the fire escape outside my apartment in New York (they must have loved me downstairs!), I sprayed varnish on the cones using a contraption rigged to the exhaust end of my vacuum cleaner. When all were dry and shiny, I used a thick frosting or coating of brown 'Bulldog' brand linoleum paste to glue a kind of 'starburst' base of long white pine or Norway spruce cones to an 18-inch diameter (or larger) 'doughnut' of cardboard – meaning there was a hole in the middle of about six inches and the cones covered the cardboard and 'Bulldog' paste.

"This had to dry for a few days, so I would make up several of these at one time. Then came the decorating, and I'll explain how to do this. Take a medium to large squat-type cone, such as from a Jack pine or longleaf pine, and with a pair of short-bladed and long-handled shears, cut the cone about an inch or so from the base – this is not easy! But you will get a beautiful zinnia-type flower. Continue cutting more flowers off the same cone if it's large enough. Drill holes into the buckeyes and string a piece of wire through them. This is important because they don't have enough texture to their skin to stay glued onto the wreath later. Take the caps off the acorns and glue them back on with white carpenter's glue. Once dried, you will be able to glue them to the wreaths.

Now comes the creativity and imagination to give each wreath its unique look.

"Before you glue anything to the wreath, lay out your design, mixing colors and textures," she explains. "Group the little cones together in little bunches, use the milkweed pods as 'leaves' under the pine cone flowers, etc. Once you have decided on your arrangement, slather enough 'Bulldog' linoleum paste to the bottom of a pine cone flower to secure it to its place. To attach smaller cones, you may want to use carpenter's glue.

"Let them dry well for a few days before the final spraying with varnish to make everything absolutely glorious! By spraying with more varnish on the finished wreath, you will bring out the richness of the colors again. Then you are ready for the gift-giving!"

A Princeton friend, who makes sure to have a wreath at every point of entry at her house, came up with an ingenious spur-of-the-moment solution to a Christmas Eve dilemma a few years ago.

Fill the Bill

"People were coming to dinner, and because of one thing and another, I suddenly realized I had no holiday centerpiece for the dining room table. I was getting frantic, and then I remembered that I had gotten a wreath for my mother's grave, shaped like a cross. I decided then and there that would fill the bill! I looked up and said 'Mom, you won't mind. I really need this!'

"I decorated it with balls, candles, and flowers, and everyone said what a wonderful centerpiece!

"Then later, I transferred it to the cemetery, and I know my mother would have been happy that her wreath was at our dinner, and I felt she was there too. Now, it has really become a tradition, and we feel we have a very special centerpiece."

She also enjoys the cheerful look of a wreath on her front, back and side doors, and for these, she usually buys a plain, undecorated 14-inch mixed green wreath, and then embellishes it.

"I add a red or gold bow, pine cones, holly berries, acorns – whatever I can find in my yard. I love Christmas, and I love the idea of a festive look on each door."

Wreath stories seem to know no bounds. For example: the true story of "the Christmas Wreath That Never Died."

Amazing Tale

A former Princeton resident, now ensconced in Arizona, recounts the amazing tale:

"We had a brick fireplace in the kitchen/family room, and each Christmas, we would have our nursery man make up a huge pine wreath to hang over the fireplace on the brick wall. We trimmed it with pine cones, red bows, holly, all the traditional wreath trimmings.

As the children grew, I decided to make it more 'fun', and I bought little wooden toys (which were intended as tree decorations), snowmen, Santas, sleighs, dolls, animals, sleds, etc. We kept the big red bow! An aside: as the 'toy collection' grew, we then decorated our door wreaths with the ornaments, too.

"One year, we realized that the wreath wasn't shedding any needles," she continues, "We figured out that the cold brick against the pine had some kind of magic reaction! The wreath would not shed or die or turn brown! As a joke, we left the wreath up way past Christmas, and the children and I decorated for Valentine's Day (hearts, cupids, red roses); then for St. Pat's (shamrocks, leprechauns, green bow).

"Along came Easter (small stuffed bunnies, chicks, plastic eggs, purple ribbon); Flag Day (small American flags, with a red, white and blue bow!) The last hurrah for the wreath was July 4. We added more flags, cut-outs of barbecue sauce bottles, hamburgers, hot dogs, hot dogs buns – which I found at a crafts store.

"We continued this tradition every year until we moved, and people were amazed at how the wreath lasted all this time.


"By the way, in recent years, we have seen 'theme' wreaths on front doors – Halloween, Easter, etc. These are artificial wreaths, trimmed the way we used to trim ours. We have decided we were definitely trendsetters!"

Nostalgia can play a part, too, she adds. "We still have the 'macaroni' wreath which our daughter made in nursery school. It's a piece of cardboard cut out in the shape of a wreath, and macaroni is glued all over it. There is a small red bow at the bottom, and it is now a collector's item!"

No such longevity has characterized the recent Arizona wreaths, but she does remark on a bay leaf wreath centerpiece (trimmed and lighted) for a holiday luncheon. "The table setting was on a forest green tablecloth, topped with an organdy-like cloth. The wreath, which was also decorated with small white bows, encircled a silver candlestick with a white candle, and it was a very pretty look."

A veritable treasure-trove of wreath happenings, she recounts one more, which originated on a visit to Florida. "We were there around the holidays, and one of the hotels had trimmed their pool toy inner tubes with holiday greens and bows, and they festooned the pool area. That, coupled with the Palm Beach holiday parade where Santa arrives on a sleigh pulled by eight pink flamingos, is one of my most memorable wreath recollections!"

Another Princeton friend tells of the time she received a rosemary wreath from a relative in California. "My aunt had made it from her rosemary bush. It not only was attractive – I hung it in the kitchen – but it was useful. I cut pieces off all year for cooking! Even when it was dried, it was still usable."

Her neighbors add to the lively seasonal display by trimming their mailbox with a holiday wreath. "Every year, they slip the mailbox through the decorated wreath, and we all look forward to seeing it."

Then, there was the "Bon Bon" wreath which decorated the front door of a New York City apartment. The mixed green wreath was cleverly adorned with a myriad of bon bons wrapped in silver foil of different colors. A big gold bow completed the look.

Not only was this pleasing to the eye, it was pleasing to the palate reports the creative bon bon wreath designer. "Guests knew they could help themselves, and the elevator man especially loved it. He knew he was welcome to have one, and by the time the holidays were over, we were practically bon bon-less!"

A variation on the theme was a wreath made of Hershey Kisses. A small pair of scissors hanging from a brightly colored red and green ribbon enabled visitors to have a snack before he/she entered the house. There are also peppermint candy wreaths, and wreaths trimmed with candy canes. There is apparently no end in sight to wreath-making possibilities.

Indeed. In whatever form or format, wreaths are a meaningful part of this special season, and what is nice is that they can be as simple or elaborate as you wish. Formal or informal, large or small, humorous or spiritual, inside or outside, they express your own holiday feelings. Perhaps sea shells, toy soldiers, small bells, or tiny ornaments are your design specialities – let them reflect your own holiday spirit. Whether of fragrant balsam, white pine, spruce, mountain laurel, or Douglas fir, the wreath will be a welcome addition to your door or window, and a sure sign that the magic of the season has arrived.


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