Saturday, December 1, 2012

The History of Wreaths: Part 1

Wreaths are one of the first decorations to appear 
in the holiday season.
I love wreaths any time of year, but most especially at Christmas.
And this season, I've been very curious
to know the history of wreaths 
and when they became associated with Christmas.
So I'm going to share what I've learned.
To know the history of wreaths at Christmas,
we have to start in ancient Rome.

First, I found a website 
that describes the Roman tradition of coronas, wreath-like crowns,
a tradition borrowed from the ancient Greeks, who adorned 
Olympic athletes with wreaths as a sign of honor.
These early Greek and Roman embellishments 
were made from a variety of materials:
leaves, flowers, herbs, and later metal, all placed around the neck or head.
Here's an unattributed image from that website,  
a woodcut of an early corona:

[image ALT: A woodcut showing a wreath made of a plant with small leaves. It is a representation of the corona obsidionalis or siege crown of the ancient Romans.]

Pliny the Elder (23 AD - 79 AD), 
was a Roman who endeavored to write all of the knowledge of his time.
In his book Naturalis Historia, in Book XXI, Chapters 1 - 8,
he writes about wreaths and garlands. 
He describes "chaplets," that is, wreaths, and their history and purpose.
Chaplets were used at funerals, sacrifices, and as rewards for military valor.
Pliny says that the ancestors of the Romans 
used very small chaplets called struppi,
but exactly what form they took is not known.

But what is known, is that the earliest chaplets were fashioned
spontaneously from the leafy branches of trees.
They were woven together and placed on the recipients' head or neck
so everyone would know they had shown courage or honor in battle.
According to a footnote in the translation of Naturalis Historia,
Festus says these early chaplets 
were oak, olive, laurel, or myrtle branches.
So those who want an authentic wreath this Christmas
may want to find a wreath of bay or myrtle leaves.

Tomorrow, Part 2.

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