While you may often see wreaths during the holiday season, wreaths are not exclusive to Christmas. With a long history and prominence in many cultures, the wreath's symbolism extends further than the modern Christmas wreath. Wreaths have many applications, including ancient Greek headdresses denoting nobility, funerary wreaths to honor the departed and Christmas and Advent wreaths.
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The Wreath's Ancient Origins
The history of the wreath extends further than a Christmas decoration. While there is no definitive moment in which wreaths rose to prominence, you can trace their origins back to ancient Greece and Rome. Athletes during that time received wreaths made from laurel trees, olives, wild celery and pine leaves.
In ancient Greece, those who attended aristocratic dinner parties wore wreaths, believing that the wreath would relieve their drunkenness. While there is currently no science to back up whether wearing a wreath on one's head prevents one from getting drunk, this belief may stem from parsley's breath mint properties, which can alleviate the smell of alcohol.
Politicians and civil servants wore wreath headdresses to denote status, achievements and rank. Roman soldiers returning from battle also wore wreaths as a symbol of honor. Additionally, respected orators and poets were given wreaths as gifts.
What Does a Wreath Represent?
So, what does a wreath represent? Depending on the culture and application, wreaths have many meanings. To the ancient Roman soldiers and Greek Olympians, wreaths represented victory. However, when displayed during funerals, wreaths represented the natural circle of life.
Christians used funerary wreaths at martyrs' funerals to represent Christ's triumph over death. Wreaths were also placed in water to float away during funerals for sailors and those lost at sea. They are commonly placed by tombstones or carved into stone in war memorials.
Similar to funerary wreaths, harvest wreaths denote the circular passing of time. Typically hung on front doors, harvest wreaths symbolized harvest preparations and were believed to bring good fortune for the upcoming winter. Some harvest wreaths included medicinal herbs to protect the home from disease.
Modern Christmas Wreath Meaning
When it comes to the modern holiday wreath meaning, it's important to note that the Christmas wreath tradition is interlinked with the history of the Christmas tree. As was a tradition in the 16th century, those who brought evergreen trees into their home pruned them, shaping the tree into a triangle representing the Holy Trinity. The cut-off branches were collected and shaped into a wreath to avoid wasting the trimmings.
Shaping the branches into a wreath had a practical purpose. During this time, wreaths were traditionally hung on Christmas trees instead of a stand-alone decoration like how they are displayed today. The wreath's wheel shape allowed it to hang off the tree's branches easily. What does the Christmas wreath symbolize, though? In addition to its practical purposes, the Christmas wreath symbolizes eternity because its circular shape never ends.
The Christmas wreath's meaning is also linked to the material used to make it. Evergreen trees were brought into homes as part of Christmas celebrations because they came to symbolize resilience in the cold winter months and ultimately, hope. Johann Hinrich Wichern, a German Lutheran pastor, is credited for adopting the wreath into Advent celebrations, placing a candle inside to represent the eternal light brought by Christ. Ultimately, a Christmas wreath stands for whatever means the most to you.