The Christmas Wreath

By Sharon Naylor

September 16, 2011 6 min read

Christmas wreaths are among the most often seen holiday decorations, ranging from all-natural evergreen wreaths studded with pinecones to more creatively designed wreaths accented with shiny silver ribbons and holiday ornaments. Some people even spray paint their wreaths pink or gold for effect.

No matter how you choose to decorate yours, it's fascinating to know the legend of the Christmas wreath.

Laura Legend, author on the site, says: "In Germany, a Lutheran tradition emerged -- the Advent wreath. The Advent wreath is made of evergreen and is symbolic of eternity in God's grace. It has three purple candles that represent penance, sorrow and expectation, and one pink candle, which stands for hope and joy. The Advent wreath represents the four weeks of Advent and is (then) used with white candles during the Christmas season."

Since the Advent wreath, minus the candles, originated the design of decorated greenery that is most similar to the wreaths used today, it's believed that the modern-day tradition of Christmas wreaths originated from this Lutheran influence.

The Rev. William Saunders, dean of the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College, says that while the Advent wreath is part of the longstanding rituals of the Catholic tradition, the origins of it are a bit uncertain. "There is evidence of pre-Christian Germanic peoples using these wreaths with lit candles during the cold and dark December days as a sign of hope in the future warm and extended-sunlight days of spring," says Saunders.

As for the round shape? Saunders shares, "In Scandinavia during winter, lighted candles were placed around a wheel, and prayers were offered to the god of light to turn 'the wheel of the earth' back toward the sun to lengthen the days and restore warmth."

Seeking light and restoration of spring, Christians in the Middle Ages adopted the tradition of the Advent wreath as part of their preparations for Christmas. Saunders says, "After all, Christ is 'the light that came into the world' to dispel the darkness of sin and to radiate the truth and love of God."

*Symbols Within the Wreath

The elements of the Advent wreath hold symbolism of their own. In addition to symbolizing "the wheel of the earth," the circular shape of a wreath symbolizes the eternity of God and the immortality of the soul. Wreaths made from various types of evergreens symbolize continuous life. Each type of greenery, according to Victorian-era symbology, holds its own meaning. Pine symbolizes immortality. Laurel signifies triumph over suffering. Cedar symbolizes strength and healing, according to Saunders. Pine cones, nuts and seeds used to decorate a wreath symbolize life and resurrection.

As for the ever-present holly leaves and berries, the meaning gets much richer. "The prickly leaves remind us of the crown of thorns," says Saunders.

"Many wreaths, before novelty-type influences, were made of holly," says Legend. "In ancient times, Celts believed that holly had magical protective powers. In Roman mythology, holly was sacred to Saturn, the sun god, so pagans worshipped holly. Holly wreaths were also common to winter solstice celebrations."

It can be quite surprising that these well-known Christian symbols such as holly within the wreath originated from pagan culture, and for a time the use of holly for Christmas wreaths was quite controversial among Christians. Still, holly became a part of Christmas tradition, even mentioned in Christmas carols.

Some scholars theorize that the crown of thorns placed on Christ's head at the crucifixion was actually a wreath of holly with white berries that turned red from Christ's blood, according to Legend. Perhaps this is why holly has lost its controversial edge.

*The Symbolism of Wreath Candles

"The light again signifies Christ, the light of the world. Some modern-day adaptations include a white candle placed in the middle of the wreath, which represents Christ and is lit on Christmas Eve," says Saunders. "Another tradition is to replace the three purple and one rose candles with four white candles, which will be lit throughout Christmas season." Most often, Advent candles were lit after the dinnertime saying of grace, and some cultural traditions state an order of who lights the purple candles. The first lighting may be done by the youngest child, the second by the oldest child, the third by the mother, and the fourth by the father.

Many families have forgone the tradition of featuring lit candles in their wreaths for fear of a fire hazard, which fire safety experts say is quite wise. But the proliferation of LED candles on the market mean that you might be able to incorporate this symbol by establishing wreath-lighting rituals of your own.

Knowing the symbolism of a wreath's accents, you can make your home's Christmas decor wreaths even more meaningful to your family.

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