So it turns out that one of the oldest, most well attested and most globally evidenced holiday traditions involves that wreath on the table, wall or door. Ancient Greeks made them from bay and cherry laurel leaves to award Olympiad victors in the Hellenic athletic contests of antiquity. Ancient Persians made them to denote authority. Ancient Egyptians made them as decorative headdress. Ancient Roman emperors wore them and awarded them to great warriors and respected poets. Of course these are all worn atop the head, although the Romans may have hung them on door lintels to celebrate Roman military victories. Our Scandinavian and northern Europeans, including the Celts, tied them into larger circles to bring into the home during the depths of winter, probably celebrating the midwinter Yule festival of light. The name derives from the Old English writhan, literally to twist. (I never knew that until today, which explains the provocative English word to undulate in pain, or writhe.) Any evergreen branch will do, bringing the spirit of the sturdy, resilient verdigris fir into the home in the depths of the cold, dark, white winter. So fir sprigs and boughs were twisted to fashion them into a circular shape, representing the infinite and eternal, and green, to symbolize life. Of course, what could not follow but candles, with wreaths positioned horizontally as place holders. Evidently 16th century Germans brought the entire ensemble together with colored candles (perhaps with some help from color-conscious Roman Catholics) and red berries and pricky leaves symbolizing Jesus’ death and Crown of Thorns (those wild Lutherans!) to create the Advent Wreath we have today. Christmas wreaths were then not far behind, hung vertically upon the front door. And those Advent candles have accrued multiple traditions of quadrilateral significance in numerous Christian expressions, all claiming original providence!
A cursory survey of Amazon wreaths for sale is a visual feast for the ages, a veritable explosion of Martha Stewart-inspired creativity. Rush to pick up that wreath steal for only…$159.95! Who can put a price on holiday happiness (besides Amazon, Wal-Mart, Etsy, Harry and David, and a legion of their retail competitors) after all?! Well….lost in all the commercialism of the season (cue the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack here) is the ancient habit of looking for life in the midst of hardship, challenge and deprivation. Of bringing nature into our living spaces, or anything which lives and grows year-round. Of lighting candles to push back the chilly darkness centuries before electric light. Of marking the natural cycles of the year with simple traditions anyone could afford and create with a little ingenuity. I love our Advent wreath, which I hand-collected and fashioned this year. I love lighting the First Candle of Advent all week and having to replace it once or twice before Christmas. I love each candle and all the Christian traditions they represent from Catholic and Protestant quarters. Why race to Christmas when we can pace ourselves and enjoy a more patient cadence? I hope you get to writhe a wreath this Advent!