Evergreen wreaths at Christmas time are a familiar sight on doors, above fireplaces, and on homes. Wreaths have been in use for many hundreds of years, even before the birth of Christ. Many historians believe that the first wreaths date back to the Persian Empire, when royalty and members of the upper class wore diadems, or fabric headbands adorned with jewels. Other cultures would later become fascinated with this tradition, picking it up and adapting it for themselves.
About 800 years before the birth of Christ, Greeks began to recognize the winners of their Olympic games by crowning them with wreaths made of laurel tree branches. Years later, when the games moved from city to city, branches from local trees were used to make these victory wreaths for the winners. During the Roman Empire, military and political leaders wore crowns of leaves and greenery. For example, Julius Caesar was crowned with a wreath made of fresh laurel branches and leaves. The transition of the wreath from a head adornment to a wall decoration is believed to have occurred when athletes (or perhaps victorious military leaders) returned home, and they would hang their headbands on their walls or doors, as a trophy of their victory.
The Egyptian, Chinese, and Hebrew cultures were known to have used evergreen branches as a symbol of eternal life, because the conifer trees stayed green throughout the winter months. After the birth of Christ, the Christmas wreath made of evergreen branches came to symbolize the triumph of life over the long winter months.
The Advent wreath also became a popular holiday tradition after the birth of Christ. This decoration was usually placed flat on a table and was used to count down the four weeks immediately preceding Christmas. Traditionally the wreath was constructed with four candles in a circle and one candle in the middle. The four outside candles were purple or violet, and the center candle was white. Four weeks before Christmas, the first violet candle would be lit. The following week, an additional candle would be lit, and so on, until the white center candle is lit on Christmas Eve or day, signifying the arrival of Christ. A brief prayer was said to accompany the lighting of each candle. The reason for the final candle being located in the center is to symbolize that we should keep Christ at the center of our lives and the center of the Christmas celebration.
Based on drawings and paintings, most historians believe that the use of evergreen wreaths at Christmas time spread across Northern Europe, Spain, and Italy during the early 19th century. The greenery was used as a symbol of life persevering through the cold winter months, and the holly berries that were often used as an adornment were a symbol of the blood of Christ.
It is also believed that Europeans also used wreaths on their doors to represent their family identity, much like a family crest. These wreaths were made from products grown in their own gardens, such as grapevines, fresh flowers, or other produce. The crafting of these wreaths was a family ritual that followed the same general pattern year after year.
Today, wreaths are still widely used around the world. In the U.S., wreaths are a traditional decoration for Christmas, as well as many other holidays throughout the year. Wreaths now adorn doors for Halloween, Valentine's Day, the Fourth of July, and Easter. Furthermore, wreaths are no longer limited to only evergreen branches. Many craft stores, books, and television shows feature unique wreaths made of a variety of unusual materials and decorations for almost any occasion.