The Garden Gate: Wreaths encircle ancient traditions

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By Ellen Probert Williamson
Evergreen and holly wreaths are everywhere during the holiday season, but all kinds of wreaths adorn our houses the rest of the year.

They include wreaths of grapevine, straw, dried flowers and herbs, ribbon bows and lace ruffles. Even such unlikely materials as pretzels and macaroni make their appearance, not to mention straw hats wreathed with blossoms and ribbons.

One wonders whether the residents of all those houses realize what an ancient tradition they are following.

The circle is an ancient symbol for eternity, because a circle has no beginning and no end. Wreaths — and wedding rings — express this symbolism.

Pliny wrote a book called “Natural History” during ancient times, and from that we can ascertain that the many gardens of Athens supplied the city with flowers and vegetables. The flowers were raised mainly for garland and wreath makers, who formed a distinct trade. Wreaths were a part of every festive occasion. They were used to adorn statues and altars. They were also awarded to public servants, worn as emblems of office and bestowed upon military heroes, poets and athletes. The phrase “to win one’s laurels” — laurel wreath — has become part of modern speech.

Wreaths in ancient Greece were exchanged between lovers, worn at weddings and used as funeral decorations. When hung on a doorway, they announced the birth of a son, and this particular symbolism has been translated into Christian symbolism.

During the chaotic centuries of the Dark Ages, monasteries became important centers of learning and of the preservation of history and tradition. Because they had to be almost completely self-sufficient, they maintained gardens for the cultivation of medicinal herbs, vegetable plots, vineyards and for the growing of flowers to decorate churches.

It is a strange paradox that while Christian laymen considered flowers in a church to be pagan, the monks decorated the altars with them. On feast days, the priests wore chaplets or wreaths of flowers on their heads. This conflict arose because the laity were recalling the wreathed Roman Carousers, and the monks were evolving a system of floral symbolism associated with both the Virgin Mary and Christ.

Garlands and wreaths were used to decorate houses and were worn on festive occasions in England during the 15th and 16th centuries. The so-called knot gardens or mazes popular in 16th-century England were first designed to simulate wreaths laid on the ground. They later became much more complex in design, leading to the ancient art of topiary in which shrubs and trees were cut and trimmed into fantastic shapes of all kinds. They included wreaths, and topiary wreaths are still popular.

Wreaths have been widely used for decoration in America, especially in Southern states, since early days. They were often made of fruits, leaves, evergreens and holly during the 18th century. Garlands and wreaths were popular in Victorian times, when they were used throughout the year as decorations for parties and weddings. A wreath of purple or lavender flowers on a home’s front door indicated a death in the family, and a white wreath announced the birth of a child.

The wreath motif continues to be widely used today in many aspects of the decorative arts, including ornamental carving on furniture, surrounding picture frames and award plaques, in plaster work and stone carving in architectural design. Wreaths are printed on fabrics and wallpaper and are often used for designs in jewelry.

In the Scandinavian countries, holiday wreaths are often made of straw in commemoration of the straw in the stable where the Christ Child was born.

Wreaths made of grapevines have long been immensely popular. They can be used as they are or ornamented with fresh or dried flowers, leaves and herbs. Grapevines cut to make wreaths are green and pliable to allow them to be easily wound around and intertwined with their own tendrils helping to hold them together.

As they dry, however, the vines turn dark gray-brown, stiffen and lock in place, which ensures that the grapevine wreath will last for years with its intricate intertwining branches going around in a circle with no beginning and no end — like the circle of eternity.

Grapevines were one of the Biblical symbols of peace and plenty. In many religions, man’s discovery and use of grapevines is attributed to divine intervention.

The vine was an early symbol of the Redeemer. In John 15:5, we read: “I am the Vine. You are the Branches.”

The grapevine became the symbol of Christian faith by decree of Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor of Rome.

It is no wonder that grapevine wreaths are so often used today on front doors, in windows, as wall decorations and as gifts.

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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.