Wreaths, one of our most traditional holiday decorations, have a classic charm and beauty that works in every home. They can be made from branches, leaves, flowers, fruits or other items that appear together as a ring.

A tradition throughout the centuries, the modern wreath can be attributed to a melting pot of religious and cultural beliefs. Today, they are mainly used as a holiday decoration, gracing doors and walls or hanging above fireplaces.

When made from fresh greenery, wreaths delight many senses, perfuming the air while they provide beauty in the home. Show your holiday spirit with a wreath for yourself or a loved one.

History of wreaths

The history of wreaths is a little vague, with more than one school of thought regarding their origin. One theory claims that the wreath dates back to ancient Greece and Rome, where members of the Greco-Roman society would make wreaths using tree leaves, twigs, small fruits and flowers. Worn as headdresses, the wreaths represented one's occupation, rank, and status. Laurel wreaths were used to crown victors of sporting events, a tradition still used today during the Olympic Games, where the medals are engraved with sprigs of laurel.

Another theory on the wreath's history claims the origin can actually be found about 1,000 years before the birth of Christ. Pagans celebrating the solstice made wreaths as a sign of perseverance through harsh winters and hope in a coming spring. Commonly made of evergreen, the wreaths included four candles representing the elements of earth, wind, fire and water, and were typically used in rituals that would ensure the continuance of the circle of life.

By the 16th century, Catholics and Protestants throughout Germany had adopted these pagan symbols to celebrate Advent, the season of waiting and preparation for the birth of Christ. A traditional Advent wreath consisted of four candles in a circle of evergreens with a fifth candle in the middle. A candle was lit at dinnertime, with an additional candle lit every week. The last candle - the one in the center - was lit on Christmas Eve and represented the birth of Jesus.

Today, the significance of the modern wreath depends on the user. A wreath's circular shape, with no beginning and no end, may symbolize an unending circle of life. Evergreen branches may symbolize the life of the earth that never truly dies, despite the winter winds and chills.

If you celebrate Christmas as the birth of Christ, the wreath might represent the preparation for the coming of Jesus. If you are a Pagan and celebrate Yule, the wreath might represent the idea of eternity or divinity. For others, the wreath is simply a beautiful decoration.

To imbibe your own wreath with personal meaning, consider the wreath's history as you are preparing your own for hanging. Reflect on what the circle means to you and your family, and decorate it with symbols that represent the past year and your hopes for the New Year.

Making a wreath

If using fresh greenery, most experts recommend an overnight soaking in water to fully hydrate your boughs. It's best to prepare your wreath form and circle of boughs or leaves on a flat table, but you can hang it up to add decorations and final touches. Often, it's easier to see where you need to add decorations when the wreath is viewed hanging.

Wreaths begin with a purchased or homemade wreath form. Purchased forms come in several varieties, including those made from wire, grapevine, straw, Styrofoam, and wet floral foam.

You can make a homemade wreath form out of two wire coat hangers. Form them each into a circle and wire them together, then cover the form with floral tape.

To make your wreath, cut several branches of greenery, allowing the type of greenery and your personal taste to determine the length. Small branches (4 to 6 inches in length) can be used, or use long branches about 8 to 10 inches in length. Fir, pine, spruce, holly, mountain laurel and boxwood are all excellent greens for making wreaths. A wreath made from magnolia leaves is a Southern tradition.

Using floral wire, secure the branches to the wreath form, overlapping the stems until the form is fully covered. You can also wire branches together into bundles, and then wire the bundles to the wreath form.

Once the form is fully covered by greenery, the fun begins. Exert your own creativity in decorating your wreath, using natural items or ribbons and other Christmas decorations. Nuts, acorns, berries, fresh fruit, pine cones, rose hips and dried flowers are good natural choices, while a red ribbon will give a traditional holiday statement. Fruit such as lemons, pomegranates, apples, and oranges are used on the beautiful wreaths found in Williamsburg.

Beyond the holidays

Wreaths are not limited to holiday use. A common custom in New England homes is to hang a different wreath for each season.

Wreaths made from herbs are a personal favorite of mine and are suitable for year-round use. The fragrance of herbs can be used to scent the air, while the wreath beautifies your home. Lavender's scented purple or white flowers make a particularly fragrant wreath.

Culinary herbs can be formed into a cooking wreath. Make a wreath with sage, rosemary, oregano and bay leaves and the cook can snip it and use it as needed in cooking. As the leaves dry, the wreath scents the kitchen.

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