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The history of wreaths: not just for Christmas

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Wreaths decorate homes and gardens each December. Fresh or faux, religious or pagan, wreaths figure into many cultures and have since ancient times. Humans seem to possess an innate instinct to create circles from wound-up plants.

The word “wreath” derives from the Old English word “writhen” meaning “to writhe” or “to twist.” This time of year, Christmas wreaths are prevalent decorations. Yet not only Christians, but also ancient Greeks, Hebrews, Chinese, and Egyptians included wreaths in their ceremonies, costumes and traditions.
“Wreaths are a big deal,” said Laurie Jekel, owner of The Last Detail, a Denver-based landscape design and build firm. Each December, Jekel designs and crafts dozens of holiday wreaths for her residential and commercial clients.
For her wreaths, Jekel uses fresh evergreen boughs, variegated boxwood branches, and brilliant red winterberries, but she called to mind Classical wreaths awarded to victorious ancient athletes.
Olympic laurel wreaths
“I immediately think of the ancient Greeks and their laurel wreaths for the Olympians,” she said.
In fact, wreaths probably originated in ancient Persia, according to northwoodsinspiration.com.
Ancient Olympic wreaths are an ancient tradition that lives on. The website noted, “Beginning in 776 B.C., wreaths made of laurel leaves were used to crown victors of Olympic Games. Later, when the Games began to move to different cities, each host city would award head garlands made of branches of local trees.
”
Contemporary Olympic medals continue to include sprigs of laurel engraved into the gold, silver or bronze. Precisely how and when wreaths transitioned from head ornaments to wall decorations isn’t clear, but one theory holds that Olympic victors hung their wreaths on their walls as souvenirs.
In Classical times, Greco-Romans fashioned wreaths using natural materials: fresh tree leaves and flowers, fruits and twigs. Wreaths worn as head-dresses indicated one's occupation and social status.
Polish maidens’ floral wreaths
In Poland, more than a thousand years ago, single girls wore fresh floral wreaths on their heads. Custom held that in June, maidens made herbal wreaths to wear for summer solstice celebrations that included St. John’s fires on June 22. Maidens tossed their herbal wreaths into the fire or floated them with candles in the reflection pools. A Polish maiden wore a wreath for the last time at her wedding.

Christmas wreaths

Jekel noted that wreaths are associated with Christmas traditions. “The shape is associated with the crown of thorns and the red signifies the blood shed by Jesus at his crucifixion,” she said.
The evergreen symbolizes eternal life.Christmas wreaths formed from evergreens probably originated in the early 19th century in northern Europe, namely Italy and Spain. The traditional colors of Christmas are green and red. Green represents the continuance of life through the winter and the Christian belief in eternal life through Christ.

Advent wreaths
The Advent wreath anticipates Christmas with candles colored violet and rose to count down the weeks before the holy day that celebrates the Nativity.
CatholicCulture.org advised on Advent wreaths: “The wreath should be in a circle, a symbol of eternity, and a reminder that God has no beginning nor end. The evergreen is a symbol of eternal life and a reminder that God is immutable or unchangeable.”
The Advent wreath may have been inspired by the Swedes’ tradition known as the Crown of Lights. On St. Lucia’s Day, young Swedish girls donned crownes with candles to venerate the Christian martyr known for donating her entire dowry to the poor.
Not all wreaths are round
In many cultures, the circle represents immortality, eternity. But not all wreaths are round. A wreath can take the shape of a square, too, or a heart. And wreaths aren’t just for Christmas decorations. Consumers can purchase wreaths for Easter, autumn, even funerals.
Wreaths served a practical as well as decorative purpose in Europe. Homeowners once used wreaths to identify their house, much in the same manner of address numbers. Individual houses displayed different wreaths, very likely featuring flowers grown right there on the property.

Natural materials make the most handsome wreaths
For optimum visual impact and enjoyment, opt for wreaths fashioned from natural materials. Synthetic materials can never match the beauty of nature.
“I try to use everything natural,” Jekel said.
Her winter wreaths begin with fresh-cut greens from the Pacific Northwest.

“I like Noble pine and Frazer fir because they’re deep green and lasts longer,” Jekel said. “I don’t like the Douglas fir because it dry up quick here. And it’s not a deep green; it’s too light for my taste.”
To the wreath forms, Jekel and her staff add additional greens and ornaments.
“We decorate the wreaths with boxwood, winter berry, pine cones, and nuts—mostly acorns I collect in the park. We use some eucalyptus and eucalyptus pods because they smell so good.”

For many people, a wreath isn’t complete without a bow. Jekel often festoons her wreaths with French wire ribbons.
“People tell us what colors to use. This year, some wanted plaid, or burgundy. I like bronze, but not gold. We use greens and even steel blues that match the eucalyptus,” she said. “Sometimes, people don’t want ribbons, so we decorate all the way around the wreath.”

Jekel said that she sometimes uses a preservative to lengthen the life of a fresh wreath. “They last up to a month,” she said. But she noted that Denver’s December cold snap killed a lot of wreaths and left fresh holiday greens brown.

Displaying a wreath

Jekel typically works with wreaths measuring 16 inches in diameter: “That’s a pretty good size for a front door,” she said. “We did a giant one this year that was 48” for a front window and added lights. It looked spectacular.”
Wreaths have a life beyond the 12 Days of Christmas. Natural wreaths without too much holiday-themed decoration serve well into the winter months.
“A lot of people leave them up and and just take the bow off after Christmas,” Jekel said

She especially appreciates boxwood wreaths: “They’re really nice because they stay green. They dry green. You really don’t have to do anything with them,” Jekel said.“I hang them on my fence and front door and leave them until March.”

Front doors and gates are common spots to hand a wreath, but Jekel also suggested wreaths on garage doors, fences and windows.
“I have one lady with one of those big concrete pigs in her yard,” Jekel said. “She always puts her wreath around the pigs’ neck.”
Wreaths also can be displayed horizontally on a table top. Wreaths make striking centerpieces.
And Jekel designs wreaths not only for the enjoyment of humans, but for the birds, as well.
“Sometimes, I attach 14-inch rings of rose hips inside another wreath,” said Jekel. “It’s beautiful, and the birds love it. The birds will peck at rose hips.”
This year, however, Jekel could not order the rose hip rings. “It’s the first year we couldn’t get them,” she said. “It’s another weather issue, just like with all the pumpkins and goards we couldn’t get this year. It’s been a weird season.”
As the calendar year ends and begins again, wreaths remind us of the cycles of the seasons, the natural wheel of life and death ever turning.

The Festival of Wreaths at Aurora History Museum

To see an assortment of wreaths with a wide range of ornamentation, visit the Festival of Wreaths, a fund-raising event at the Aurora History Museum. For wreath decorating ideas, check out the website with a catalog of all the festival wreaths:

••• "Cultivate your corner of the world.

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Colleen Smith writes from and gardens in Denver, Colorado. She's been a longtime regular contributor to The Denver Post, Colorado Expression, Sunset Magazine, and other publications.

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