We've all got our favorite holiday traditions, but some of them have become so deeply ingrained in our culture over time that they feel less like they're pegged to a specific holiday and more like the trappings of general winter merriment. For example: Why do we hang wreaths at Christmas? Is there a link between wreaths and the Christmas holiday in particular, or does it have more to do with the season or time of year? Is our tradition of hanging wreaths on our doors tied to history, or is it all about mass commercialization? It feels like a deep dive might be warranted here, so let's dig in and see what we find.
Interestingly, the wreath discussion is pretty layered. As with most cultural relics, the holiday wreath has its roots in several different religions and cultures. Depending on who you ask, some people see the holiday wreath as being entirely secular and simply decorative. Others, however, link the evergreen branches back to Christianity. There is even symbolism to be found in the structure of the traditional wreath itself; the choice of the evergreen branches and the circular shape aren't accidental.
As Roberta Hershenson explains at The New York Times, for many Christians, the wreath represents Jesus Christ's suffering. The logic here is that the wreath represented the thorns worn by Christ on the cross, and the tiny red berries represent Christ's blood. In this case, the evergreen represents eternal life. When Christians hang a wreath on their door or in their window, it's an invitation for Christ to come into their home.
According to wreath specialist Christmas Forest, however, some people trace the origins of the holiday wreath back to Ancient Rome. For example, some argue that the wreath symbolizes victory, and that Romans hung them on their doors after a win in battle. Meanwhile, Holiday Insights reports that some people believe that the circular shape of the wreath represents eternity and the never-ending circle of life. The evergreen, which lives through all seasons including harsh winter conditions, represents continuous growth and life.
Garret Mathews at the Evansville Courier & Press also notes that wreaths on the door may signify death. While this is less tied to the holiday season, some cultural symbolism suggests that when a person hangs a wreath on their door, it means that there has been a death in the family and that the surviving relatives are in mourning. We can loosely tie this connection to the Christian belief that the wreath is tied to Christ's suffering and Christ's death upon the cross, though the two traditions are not explicitly linked.
In contemporary day, you'll see a lot of variety in wreaths. Some people decorate them with fabric, pins, buttons, jewels, or shells. Some people even stray from the traditional evergreen branches entirely. While we all have our own reasons for hanging a wreath, or choosing to side-step the tradition together, the most important thing to remember is that the holidays are a time to be good to others, whether their belief system is the same as yours or not.
Happy holidays, everybody!
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