Origins of the Christmas WreathAlthough it may appear a few items down your list of things you think of for decorations at Christmas time (after Christmas trees, lights, presents, and even nativity scenes) the wreath is one of the most enduring holiday symbols that there is. With its roots in pagan history, the wreath can also be regarded as a decoration appropriate to many different faiths, not just Christianity.
Ancient Roots of the Wreath
Laurel wreaths and wreaths made from the leaves of other trees were common among several ancient peoples. People who used this type of symbol included the Druidic cultures of Germania and Britannia as well as the Greeks and the Romans. The Greeks would use the laurel wreath to bestow upon their athletes in the Olympic Games as a sign of the favor of the god Apollo. Romans would use the wreath as a symbol of authority, as would the druidic cultures.
The circular shape of the wreath was widely accepted to represent eternity (a circle has no beginning and no end). In the case of the Greeks, Apollo''s wreath symbolized an eternal love for a goddess. The Romans held authority in great esteem, and the wreath represented the eternal nature though to be bestowed upon rulers of the empire. For druidic and other cultures that utilized the wreath, the circle symbolized a continuation of nature that surpassed the time line of earthly beings.
In Britain and Germany, the traditions of the druids often became intertwined with those of the Romans during the occupation of these lands. Thus, several Roman celebrations began to incorporate druid practices, and vice versa. By the time the Romans left Britain, the influence of Christianity was also a crucial factor in the development of the traditions of the Island. Thus, the three cultures had meshed to form some of the most enduring parts of modern North American traditions. The use of pine boughs to form the Christmas wreath is a direct result of the influence of Saturnalia (which also led to the use of the Christmas tree).
As Christianity spread, the use of the wreath began to take on different meanings, supplanting the old mystic cultural intonations. The idea of an eternal circle as the basis of the shape remained, but instead of symbolizing pagan rituals and beliefs Christians claimed the shape represented the unending love of God and his son, Jesus. Holly berries and scarlet ribbons were also incorporated into the wreath. These decorations symbolized the blood that Jesus shed at Easter. The wreath can also be considered to be a symbolic representation of the crown of thorns that Jesus wore during his crucifixion, thus serving to remind Christians that the celebration of the birth of Christ should also be cause to remember his death.
While many people hang wreaths from their doors, there are also wreaths that are used in advent celebrations. This tradition became widespread in Germany, and from there has spread to many other countries. The advent marks the four weeks leading up to Christmas. A candle is lit on the Sunday of each of these weeks. Traditionally, the candles on the wreath are violet and rose, but most advent commemorators will use colors of white or red for their candles.