It began in the mid-1800s – when Christmas trees were capturing imaginations and holiday spirits throughout all of England, and catching hold with equal enthusiasm in America.
All manner of pine trees were being harvested from their native woods and carried homeward – hauled behind horses or by hand, dragged up front steps, and stuffed through the doorways of castles and cottages alike. They were being joyfully thrust into the very heart and hearth of family traditions. And, once inside, they were placed just so – to delight and be decorated and danced around. They transported the beauty of the natural world into a sort of happy collision with civilized interiors.
Depending on the size and shape of the room where the tree was to stand as the center of the family Christmas festivities, its branches were cut and pruned and trimmed and shaped to fit the surrounding space – branch by branch, side to side, top to bottom.
It was, of course, an age that was much less disposable, much more mindful of a “reuse, recycle, repurpose” approach to things, than our culture would later become (a consciousness we seem to believe we only recently invented). And so, the clipped-off branches of the trees were duly saved and set aside. Rather than being discarded, they were gathered together and woven into holiday fancies and swags – but primarily into the shape of wreaths – for hanging on chimneys and walls, on doors and fences, on bedposts and lampposts, even in horse stables. They were artfully crafted into decorative messages of Christmas joy throughout the house and grounds, into the very streets of the town.
The idea that Christmas wreaths were originally nothing more than “leftovers” – mere bits and pieces of Christmas trees, simple scraps trimmed away – greatly intrigues and pleases me. Out of “leftover scraps” came some of our most beautiful, meaningful, enduring seasonal emblems.
Historically, wreaths of ivy and laurel recognized victory and rewarded excellence; but the Christmas wreath is wholly unique and singularly symbolic – both humble and grand, natural as well as spiritual.
The very shape of the wreath reminds us of the eternity of faith, the circle of life, the returning of seasons. The open space at its center is there to welcome the Holy Family and embrace all travelers and visitors. Embellished with holly berries and pinecones and ribbons, it speaks of hospitality, bounty, gratitude, forgiveness, fidelity, faith, hope.
I suspect the Christmas wreath seems especially poignant in the context of “time” – with the nearing conclusion of an old year and the coming of a new one – because it reminds us to reclaim all the bits and pieces of the year just past, the bits of life and pieces of each other that we’ve experienced and shared through it all. And to hold fast, and value them in all their ordinary significance.
Wreaths seem to example to us that when all the small “scraps” of life – the kindnesses and compassion, the thin twigs of peace and empathy, the branchy bits of affection and laughter and remembrance – are cobbled together, even when they are intertwined with all the mistakes and missed opportunities, fears and forgetfulness, the pain and misperceptions of the year – we are, somehow, stronger; we are bound together in a more cohesive form, a kind of solidarity of collective wisdom and experience.
In my own past year, you and I have shared together through my columns a mixed collection of tiny bits and pieces – scraps in time – of singing wolves and human voices, opossums on the loose and fences in our lives, the inherent promises of chocolate, and the messages of hearts, and many many lessons from dogs.
In the end, I suspect it is always the small and scruffy scraps of life that are the most meaningful. And, when woven together, they carry a particular tensile strength and resiliency.
May you celebrate this Christmastime with your own special wreath of remembrances; may it be full of all the best bits and pieces, scraps and leftovers; and may it be ever green with peace, hope, and possibilities.