Christmas Wreaths and Winter Solstice Celebrations

By: Lynn Jebbia

Christmas wreaths have a seasonal connection with the pagan feasts of the winter solstice. Winter solstice happens on the shortest day of the year when, in the northern hemisphere, the earth is tilted farthest away from the sun. The sun has its lowest arc in the sky of the year on winter solstice.

Winter solstice ceremonies were performed by many cultures over time. Fear that the sun would never return were the motivation for these ceremonies. Ceremonies and celebrations gave hope. Many of these cultures were pagan sun worshipers. Some of the greatest architectures of ancient cultures were built to align with the solstices and equinoxes - temples, tombs, cairns and sacred observatories.

The earliest Christmas wreaths were made from holly during Roman times. Holly was looked on as having magical powers to the ancient Celts as it was one of the few plants to survive and look beautiful in the winter. The Celts picked holly boughs and put them in their houses to ward off the evils they believed lurked about in the darker months. Roman soldiers are believed to have brought the idea of decorating with holly back from Britain.

Holly was used by the Romans during their winter solstice celebrations and became sacred to Saturn, the sun god the Romans worshipped. The week long winter solstice celebrations of the Romans honored Saturn. Holly wreaths with their bright red berries were given as gifts. Holly was everywhere during these celebrations - on the public buildings, in the streets and shops, inside and outside of homes. The tradition of giving wreaths as gifts started here. Holly was thought to be lucky so the more you had the better off you were.

Early Christians in Rome would decorate their homes with holly to avoid persecution during the winter solstice festivals even though they didn't worship Saturn. Over time the meaning behind the tradition of holly Christmas wreaths blurred and it eventually became a symbol of Christian faith. It was used to explain the life and death of Christ. The leaves represented the crown of thorns and the red berries represented Jesus' blood.

The Roman Emperor Constantine gave official status to Christianity and forced all the pagans to be baptized into the Roman church. He needed to join the Christians and pagans and so pagan rituals and idols took on Christian names and pagan holidays like winter solstice festival became Christian holidays. December 25th was the birthday of the Gods to the pagans. Eventually many pagan symbols and traditions were melded into Christian symbols and traditions.

Today Christmas wreaths are a seasonal tradition that most people in the United States follow. You don't go by many houses without a wreath on the door during the holidays. The meaning of the wreath is not so much about religion as it is about showing seasonal cheer and good will to all.

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