What’s in a Christmas wreath?

by Craig Wishart

What’s in a wreath? Craig explored the history of Christmas decorations  photo by Alan Cleaver

What’s in a wreath? 
photo by Alan Cleaver

WHEN the Christmas decorations go up, for some reason we all drag a live tree into our lounge room, hang stuff on it and place a wreath on our front door for good measure.

Surely I’m not the only person who’s found this practice a little strange?

I mean a decorative wreath I can understand but let’s be honest anyone who kept a resident tree inside all year would be considered something beyond eccentric.

Yet we all do it, year after year and as the festive season approaches now is as good a time as any to find out why.

While many might believe this is a Christian tradition the Christmas trees roots sink deeper into Pagan history.

Norse people valued the mystical importance of evergreens that grew in their forests.

In the bitter, frozen landscape these trees were believed to have some special power against the darker magic of winter because they were the only plants that remained green.

People would hang bushels of evergreens like conifer, mistletoe and holly over their doors and windows believing their spirit was enough to ward off mid-winter evils.

This gave rise to the unassuming wreath which has passed through history.

It’s believed that wreaths were hung on doors in Ancient Rome to represent victory.

In Christianity, the Christmas wreath has come to symbolize Christ, with the circular shape representing life never ending.

They were typically decorated with four candles, three on the exterior and one in the middle which was lit on Christmas Eve to symbolize the arrival of Jesus Christ bringing light to the world.

The word wreath comes from the old English ‘writhen’, which meant ‘to writhe’ or ‘to twist’.

I branched off for a minute but now we get back to the tree, a glorious tradition with perhaps a very humble origin as a lowly medieval air freshener.

Branches would be brought inside because their scent would mask the odour of the dark homes which were filled with stagnant straw and grime.

The needles and cones could be burned as a form of incense, the smoke and fragrance filling the home with the protective spirit of the evergreen.

The modern Christmas tree began in Germany around the 16th century when devout Christians brought trees into their homes and decorated them with edibles such as apples or nuts.

In the 18th century people began the rather dangerous practice of illuminating them with candles.

The popularity of Christmas tree began to spread beyond Germany during the second half of the 19th century.

The upper classes were the first to adopt the strange tradition which may have been brought to Britain’s shores with the marriage of Princess Victoria to her cousin, Albert of Germany.

Technological advances have brought electricity and non-flammable lights, tinsel, candies, baubles and a variety of gaudy ornaments which make the tree what it is today.

A Christmas tree is something more than just a place to put the presents, when you bring one into your home you’re really participating in an enduring tradition and I think that makes it all the more special.