The History of Wreaths

Fresh wreath hanging on a white door

Not Just A Tradition

Wreaths are a popular decoration piece used for all sorts of events and holidays, from Christmas and harvest celebrations to weddings and funerals. You can easily find a harvest wreath or a word wreath at your favourite wreath store to add the perfect touch to your celebration. To some people, wreaths are simply an elegant visual piece to add some magic to an environment. To others, they are a key factor in holding tight to the joy of their Christmas traditions.

Although the red berries, flowers, and greenery do have a certain visual appeal and are a big part of holiday tradition, these creative pieces also have a long history of symbolism that most people don't know about.

The Origin of Laurel Wreaths

Wreaths in Ancient Greece and Rome

Golden angel statue holding laurel wreath

It's hard to know exactly when wreaths originated, but it's generally believed that they were first introduced in ancient Greece and Rome. In the middle ages, wreath crowns and headdresses had different significance depending on the materials they were made from and who they were given to.

To non-athletes, specific leaves and materials of a headband or headdress represented the status, achievements, rank, and occupation of different people, such as politicians and civil servants. To athletes, the wreath was a token of victory, as Olympic athletes were crowned with wreaths made from leaves of a laurel tree, olive, wild celery, and pine to symbolize strength. Wreaths were also given as gifts to orators and poets for their work and were awarded to Roman soldiers returning from battle as a symbol of honour.

Wreaths As A Symbol

In Ancient Greece, laurel wreaths were displayed at funerals to represent the circle of eternal life. The laurel wreath also played a role in the pagan religions of this time. Artists often carved wreath-like shapes on their gods' heads to show their might and power. While the wreath rose to popularity as a symbol of power, victory, and honour in ancient times, it eventually began to be used for other events and celebrations too.

The association between wreaths and eternal life, durability, and strength in Europe remained intact throughout Christianity's rise to prominence. Much of the symbolism was carried over when early Christians began to make wreaths out of evergreen boughs.

The Christmas Wreath

A Staple of Christmas Festivities

Despite the use of wreaths in pagan worship in the past, they are now typically associated with Christmas. In a sense, we can thank the evergreen tree for originating the Christmas wreath; in the sixteenth century, people in northern and eastern Europe began to bring evergreen trees into their homes to celebrate the wintery holiday of Christmas. The evergreens generally had to be trimmed to fit into a room and to look more uniform to add a cozy atmosphere to Christmas Eve. Along with the invention of the Christmas tree, Christmas wreaths were introduced.

Crafting a Christmas wreath from evergreen branches

At a time when waste was frowned upon, the parts of the tree that were trimmed off were woven into a circular shape, called a wreath. Christmas wreath making soon became a common practice whenever the holiday came around.

Christmas Wreaths

People admired evergreens because they could survive harsh winter weather. Weaving evergreen limbs into a circular shape was a symbol of eternal life used by many European Christians. Wreaths became a key custom of Christmas celebration in Christian communities, especially when the Lutheran church introduced the tabletop wreath, also known as the Advent wreath.

Advent is a four-week time period before Christmas set aside by many Christian denominations, including Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Episcopals, Lutherans, and also some Protestants. As Christmas approached, an evergreen wreath would be placed on a flat surface, usually a table, and decorated with lit candles to symbolize the light of Jesus brought into the world on Christmas day. Each of the candles on the Advent wreath has its own significance.

The Five Candles of the Advent Wreath

There are generally a total of five candles on Advent wreaths. Three of these candles, usually purple, stand for peace, hope, and love, which are foundational principles of Christianity. A red candle, in the wreath along with the purple, is lit to symbolize the blood of Christ shed on the cross when He was crucified. The fifth candle is white and stands in the centre of the wreath, symbolizing the purity of Christ's incarnation and Virgin Birth. Together, the five candles are a representation of the light of the gospel of Christ that entered the world on Christmas day.

Moody advent wreath with all candles lit

Why a Wreath?

The materials of advent wreaths also hold their own significance. Holly berries and holly leaves are used to symbolize the crown of thorns that was laid on Jesus' head during the crucifixion. The red berries represent His blood that was shed, and laurels show His conquest over pain, suffering, sin, and death. In addition, pine, holly, and yew stand for eternal life and cedar, pinecones, seeds, nuts, and fruit symbolize the renewal of life.

Even the circle shape of the wreath played a role in this staple of Christmas traditions. Not only was the donut-shaped decoration easy to hang on the branches of the tree, but it also had spiritual meaning. The circle is an infinite shape that stood for divine perfection and eternity following Christ's second coming. It brought with it the hope of eternal life with God after worldly death. The advent wreath was a constant reminder of God's unending love for his people in the sacrifice of His Son.

Other Traditions

Yule Celebration

Although Christmas wreaths are the most popular, wreaths were also used in pagan celebrations. In ancient Germany and some Scandinavian countries, evergreen wreaths marked the winter solstice of Yule. Yule is a 12-day holiday when people celebrated the return of the sun and the cycle of the seasons. The greenery and natural materials of the wreaths stood for nature and the promise of new life that came with spring. Some people also lit candles on their wreaths to welcome the warmth and sunlight of the new season. Today, the word "yule" can be interchangeable with Christmas.

Harvest Wreaths

Similar to Yule celebrations, some people hung harvest wreaths decorated with last year's harvest on their front doors. It was a symbol of preparing the harvest for the harsh winter season and bringing good fortune to their crops. The round shape symbolized that the cycle of seasons wouldn't end. Some people also hung herbal wreaths on their doors. They believed that hanging medicinal herbs on their doors would protect the home from diseases and evil.

Colourful harvest wreath hanging on purple door

Funeral Wreaths

Flowers have always been a custom at funerals. As a symbol of continuing life, it was (and still is) also common to have funeral wreaths. For example, when a young maiden passed away, a funeral wreath of white flowers was held by another woman to show the purity of the deceased. In church history, Christians also used wreaths at funerals for martyrs to show Christ's victory over death.

Nowadays, some people hold onto the traditions of floating wreaths on the water in remembrance of those lost at sea or for the funeral of a sailor. Wreaths are also commonly used for war memorials and are sometimes carved onto tombstones. Just like in ancient Greece, wreaths continue to act as a token of bravery and strength, even in death.

Wreaths Today

Wreaths are much more than Christmas decorations and accent pieces. Just like all traditions, there's a story behind all the different ways we use wreaths. Starting out as a symbol of power and glory, wreaths have only gained popularity and meaning over time. They are used to celebrate Christ during Advent, to prepare and decorate for harvest, and even to symbolize bravery at funerals. While the creative accessories and fresh greenery of a wreath make it a beautiful accent piece, we shouldn't forget how each wreath has its own meaning and story.

Find a Wreath With Meaning

Just because wreaths have past symbolism doesn't mean you can't add to their meaning. Find a wreath that makes you feel with Wreaths Across Canada's vast collection. Whether you're looking to add to your Christmas traditions with Christmas wreaths or want to make the funeral of a brave loved one feel special, you can find the perfect wreath for the occasion with Wreaths Across Canada.