A Wreath of Christmas
In the run up to this Christmas season I am in Indianapolis at a soccer tournament with three wise men in my life: husband, son, and grandson. There is snow and twinkly excitement in the air because this is a showcase event where college scouts are looking for talent. The lights providing the twinkle are tall floodlights to keep the matches lit from early to late in the evening. The snow is sleety giving the boys red noses. The many, many, pitches are made of artificial green plastic.
While I watch teen boys lolloping after a ball, I am thinking about a sparkly new film we watched on Netflix last week. ‘A Castle for Christmas’. It’s the one we heard about being filmed in Scotland during COVID last year with Brook Shields starring. It was an extra special trope filled confection. You know the kind of thing. The handsome but poor owner of the castle in his boiler suit is mistaken as a humble servant by a rich American writer, (Brook). They hate each other, all the way to the finale of the glorious Scottish Christmas party (always a tradition in The Highlands as you know). It was replete with be-tartaned, local yokels, dancing jigs. The required last-minute rapprochement came and went, there was papery looking looking snow on the ground, and the exterior of the castle was hung in an overblown Hollywood Christmas style with huge wreaths and garlands that would make Balmoral blush.
In an attempt to ignore the schmaltziness, I pondered the origin of the Christmas wreath. In Cornwall in the fifties my farmer dad would collect two holly circles from the local florist and take them along the road to the cemetery, where he would lay them on the family graves at Christmas. I remember when accompanying him in the farm pick-up, he didn’t say much. it seemed to be another errand, like picking up a sack of potatoes or dropping off a machine to be mended. We would push through the iron lych gate at the entrance and weave our way between the lines of gravestones to arrive at the one marked Jasper. He would lay the wreaths down on the space in front of a tall memorial stone under which would have been the ribcages of our forebears, then walk away; job done. I don’t remember a moment of contemplation, a sniff or a hanky being taken out to wipe a tear.
Wreath is from the old English word to writhe or weave. The Romans hung wreaths on their doors to demonstrate status or victory. The pattern of an evergreen Laurel wreath is still on Olympic medals. This weekend the medals handed out at the go-cart place, which served as boyish entertainment between soccer matches, had a laurel wreath pattern. These circles of greenery signifying everlasting life or regeneration, date back to pagan times, and forward to the Christian era. In its vertical position on a front door, a wreath communicates to the visitor or passer-by: ‘Welcome to our organised home, we know it’s Christmas and we aren’t afraid to say so. In a horizontal mode, four candles are set around the circular space at the center of the wreath to mark the weeks of the Christian Advent month. It is interesting to note that in the Pagan tradition of tree worship, four candles were also used signifying earth, air, wind, and water. Add the element of ‘spirit’ and you get a five-pointed star that was placed at the top of ancient winter festival trees. This five-sided star doubles up now on the top of Christmas trees as the star leading the wise men to Bethlehem.
One other thing my father did to add to the Christmas spirit, was to collect a few sprigs of holly from the woodland nearby and prop them over the pictures and the grandfather clock. When I asked him the reason, he replied, ‘‘Dunno us have always dun it’. Fir trees were perhaps too modern for him. I knew that his mother, my grandma, was strict about what was allowed inside … no may blossom for instance because the bad fairies lived in it, and the holly was always taken down before Epiphany. Her superstitious beliefs were held close to the chest, alongside church going habits.
The wreaths on the front of the film castle had me writhing with cultural discomfort. Why? It was because their size produced a visual distortion that reduced the castle down to a playhouse castle. Where in the world did these huge decorations come from? The answer became clear this week. Downtown, here in America we saw similar huge wreaths hanging on the concrete frontage of the bank. In the big-shed hardware stores all over America they are for sale… vast plastic fir circles, with gigantic red bows. It would seem likely that they would have been sourced over here in America, shipped in a container along with the plastic snow and trucked by road to Dalmeny House in the Firth of Forth, which was standing in for the fictional castle. Cherry pickers and scaffolding would have been busy for days hanging it all.
I wonder where all that green plastic is now? Hopefully demonstrating its everlasting ability to survive by being recycled into AstroTurf for Scottish football pitches.
As children the Christmas decorations were a welcome change from the drab farm life. Our front room had to do a quick change from being a cool, turkey laying out room to the warm centre of our Christmas day. Pallid poultry corpses plucked, drawn and neatly lined up, awaiting collection until late on Christmas Eve, made way for the paper chains we had already licked into shape. The coke stove was lit to warm Santa’s arrival. A little tree in a bucket was decked out modestly. Tarnished tinsel was wound around the lower branches, and from the cardboard box of delicate glass baubles. We would unwrap the fairy from her crumpled yellowing tissue paper coverlet and lift her up to sit at the very top of the tree.
Why a fairy not an angel? I suggest to you it’s another example of our old beliefs peeping through the Christian takeover of Yule. At midwinter in times past, when it was never certain that the life-giving sun would return, sacrifices and supplications were made to increase the chances of the renewal of life. Green trees were brought into the house at midwinter, hung with edible and shiny things to feed and entice the wood sprites.