What’s the significance of the Christmas wreath?

Natural or synthetic, colourful or plain, what’s the significance of the Christmas wreath?

It seems as though every other door is adorned with a Christmas wreath this year, but where does the tradition come from and what does it mean? Are wreaths a modern Christian invention or an ancient Roman symbol?

The ancient wreath

Traditionally, wreaths have always been associated with honour. Roman emperors wore laurel wreaths as a symbol of power and success, and Roman soldiers were decorated with wreaths when they returned from battle. The Egyptians used wreaths made from intricately designed cloths to adorn their statues of gods, while the Greeks awarded wreaths to Olympic winners, powerful orators and popular poets.

The Germanic wreath

Early Germanic communities made wreaths as table decorations to remind them that winter would eventually end and spring would one day return. The evergreen circle was a symbol of new life and eternity. Brides often wore wreaths made from rosemary to symbolise their everlasting love and new life with their husbands.

The Christmas wreath

First adopted by the Lutherans during the sixteenth century, the Christian wreath was soon used by the Catholic, Episcopal and Anglican churches along with other Christian and non-Christian traditions. They were traditionally made from natural materials such as pinecones, yew, cedar, holly, nuts and seeds. The holly, yew and pine symbolised eternal life, with holly also representing the crown of thorns Jesus wore prior to his death. Laurel symbolised victory over pain and suffering, while cedar represented healing. Seeds, nuts and pinecones symbolised new birth.

The circle symbolised the four seasons and the ongoing cycle of life. For Christians it represented God’s omniscient presence and never-ending love. It reminded believers of the eternal life Christ had purchased for them on the cross. Candles are often added to enhance their Christmas meaning. Three purple candles (symbolising penance) and one pink candle (representing joy) are lit during Advent, with a white candle lit on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day to represent the coming of Christ, the light of the world.

The door wreath

Wreaths were traditionally used as table centres, but have become commonly used as door decorations. The custom goes back to ancient times, with the Greeks leaving wreaths on the doors of their suitors as a sign of love and devotion. Harvest wreaths were used across Europe, with fruits and nuts added to represent God’s provision and faithfulness, while herbal wreaths were believed to ward off evil spirits. Scandinavian farmers used door wreaths all year round as a superstitious aid to protect and multiply their crops.

Whatever yours looks like, remember God’s everlasting love for you and all of humanity this Christmas.