Very gay they were with snow and sleigh-bells, holly-boughs, and garlands, below, and Christmas sunshine in the winter sky above. All faces shone, all voices had a cheery ring, and everybody stepped briskly on errands of good-will. ~Louisa May Alcott, “Seamstress,” Work: A Story of Experience, 1873
Although December signifies the beginning of Christmas festive; the setting of the holly boughs or wreaths on the door and the Christmas star on the porch signals the start of the season of love, joy and hope. The word ‘wreath’ is derived from the Old English word ‘writhen’ meaning to writhe or twist. The Romans used to hang them on their doors as sign of status or victory, or awarded during events like the Original Olympics held in Greece or worn by women at special occasions like weddings as headdresses. However the Christmas Wreaths of today may have started life as Kissing Boughs.
Before Christmas trees became popular, a more common mode of decoration at homes was “the kissing bough”. Made of five wooden hoops that made the shape like a ball ( four vertical hoops for the ball with one horizontal round the middle) were covered with holly, ivy, rosemary, bay, fir or other evergreen plants. Red apples from strings or red ribbons were hung from inside the hoop, with a candle inside the ball and a large bunch of mistletoe from the bottom of the ball.
Interestingly holly, ivy, mistletoe and the like were used in the pre-Christian era to celebrate the Winter Solstice Festival as well as ward off evil spirits. As Christianity came into Western Europe, Christian meanings were given to the “greenery”.
The prickly leaves of holly represent the crown of thorns f Christ with the red berries symbolized as drops of blood. The clinging nature of ivy to something in order to support itself signifies our need to lean on God for support at all times. In fact, sometimes a piece of ivy tied outside the church is supposed to protect the church from lightening.
Laurel worn as a wreath on the head symbolizes success and victory of God over the Devil. The evergreen of fir as well yew trees symbolize everlasting life . Rosemary also known as remembrance herb was connected with the Virgin Mary and believed to protect one from evil spirits.
Traditionally, the greenery is taken down after the Twelfth Night on Epiphany, to be packed and stored safely for the next year. Yet some homes keep it up till Candle-mas. While these traditions may not be significant for some, putting up these decorations bring a lot of cheer as well as welcoming Christmas time with a warm feeling.
“When the holly’s in the red
And the pine is in the green,
When the mornings all are frosty,
In a brilliant silver sheen
Then I love to go a’ walking
Rambling here and there, quite slow,
Plucking greenery and berries;
Wishing for a Christmas snow”