When it comes to the holidays, there are many traditions we wonder how we ever started. One I often wonder about is the hanging of wreaths. It turns out this tradition is centuries old, but every holiday season it renews itself.
Most wreaths are circular, and the circle has long been symbolic of the unbroken span of eternity, as well as the circular nature of life itself. Used in mid December at the time of the Winter Solstice, the circle symbolizes the certainty the endless cycle of seasons will once again bring the return of light.
The ancient Romans decorated their homes with greens for the mid-winter feast of Saturnalia, while early Germanic people used wreaths of greens for their winter celebrations, sometimes combining them with candles to evoke images of light. Scandinavians had similar winter customs. As Christianity spread through the Roman Empire and across Europe, the new Christians combined well-loved older customs with Christian celebrations to form the basis of today's holiday traditions.
The act of hanging wreaths and greens was not always without controversy. In the 1500s, Protestant reformer John Calvin condemned the frivolity that accompanied Christmas and other holiday celebrations, and his spiritual descendants, the Puritans, did the same in England and in the early colonies. But, by the late 1800s, the idea of marking the Christmas season with feasting, celebration and decoration had taken hold and the tradition of wreath hanging survived.
Whatever the decorations, wreaths are the perfect symbol of the personal, spiritual, traditional, contemporary and, above all, festive spirit of the holidays. If you purchase a fresh, evergreen wreath this season, give it a shake to see if the needles fall off. A few needles are fine, but if a lot fall off the boughs are not fresh and the wreath will not last as long. Once the wreath is brought home, place the wreath away from any direct heat sources. A fresh wreath will last for a few weeks inside and a few months outside!
Anne Lenox Barlow is the horticulture educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension in Clinton County. CCE offices may be reached in Clinton County at 561-7450; Essex County, 962-4810; and Franklin County, 483-7403. E-mail your questions to askMG@cornell.edu.