Williamsburg Christmas Wreaths
Wreaths are familiar to the Classive tradition. There are Greek wreaths of victory for Olympia and other ancient contests, there are harvest wreaths of Apollo, garland wreathes of the Hellenic gods, Roman imperial wreathes of triumph, Christian Advent wreaths, and there is our Christmas wreath, an American tradition made popular, beautifully celebrated each winter at Colonial Williamsburg.
With the beginning of Advent, the handsome doors of Colonial Williamsburg are prettily dressed in Christmas wreaths. And here at Williamsburg you might think the Christmas wreath is an 18th Century tradition. It is not. Williamsburg colonial residents were less likely to celebrate Christ’s birth than to plow a field, to tend account books, to satisfy orders with hammer and nail. The day of Christian celebration for the Plymouth Pilgrims, the New England Puritans, and the Virginia Anglicans was Easter, the celebration of Christ’s resurrection, the promise of forgiveness of sins, and hope of life ever after.
Christmas for Williamsburg Anglicans, as for 21st Century Americans, is the conclusion of Advent, the 24 days that begin the Christian calendar: “Advent“, a time for spiritual reflection, for the soul’s preparation, for the body’s disciplined fast of but one meal each day. The 25th day, Christ’s Nativity, “Christmas”, was a day of worship when the church was garlanded in holly, ivy, and laurel, a time after fast when mistletoe hung delightfully from church rafters. Christmas, a break fast, was a day of reverence, a time of celebration in dance and in song, songs alike the merry “Deck the Halls”, and improving hymns alike “Joy to the World”*: Williamsburg Christmas wreaths.
Joy to the World, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing.
At Williamsburg, as in your neighborhood, all alike celebrate Christmas, expecting Scrooge, other curmudgeons, and the extreme faithful of New England where merriment was culturally taboo and where Cromwell’s legal proscriptions against Christmas persisted.** There, in New England, our Pilgrim Thanksgiving was the ultimate celebration of God’s blessings. Here in Williamsburg, Christ’s birth was celebrated in restrained joy and measured beauty.
In the first instance, you might say, “Our Christmas wreaths were born in the Middle Age of the Classive tradition, a spiritual time when candlelit wreathes promised hope beyond December’s dark”. As you know, Christ “the Light that came into the world” dispelled the darkness of sin, radiated warmth and the love of God. There is that, of course, and there is the joy of the Middle Classive Age, a joy shared by we of the Modern Classive Age, the prettily decorated evergreen, symbol of tradition in faith. These symbols (below), as like you know, are a wreath’s emblematic meaning: Williamsburg Christmas wreaths.
Laurel, victory over persecution and suffering;
Pine and Yew, immortality;
Cedar, strength and healing,
Holly, Christ’s blood and the crown of thorns;
the Wreath, having neither beginning nor end is alike the eternity of God, the immortality of soul.
Many will tincture their wreaths with delicious Aroma, lavender, rose, and rosemary, and lately, a common citrus, prohibitively expensive in the Middle Classive, now nearly universal in use.
The wreathing tradition of Colonial Williamsburg is the model of the American Christmas Wreath. And why? Colonial Williamsburg is Georgian; the Georgian is Palladian; the Palladian is of the Renaissance, the rebirth of Roman Classive civilization, exuberant in decorative swags, an exuberance found in the family della Robbia’s rich trophies of fruit.*** Andrea della Robbia, and the family in entire is best known for glazed terra-cotta portraits of Virgin and Child, bountiful in sprays of fruit and greens. This style of wreath, before being known as the “Williamsburg Christmas Wreath”, was known as a “Della Robbia”. Williamsburg Christmas wreaths.
In brief: with the opening of Colonial Williamsburg (circa 1936), Christmas decoration was wanted, but of an uncommercial type, a type that might seem, in its way, colonial. Mrs. Louise Fisher of Williamsburg was put in charge of decorations (1936), and she, by dilating research and with commendable creativity developed the prototype of the Williamsburg Christmas Wreath style. Soon, the lady’s Garden Club became involved; wreaths were improved, refined by competition; wreathes achieved excellence by the spur of public voting; and winners were awarded Blue Ribbons. After the War, Williamsburg grew in popularity, the nation grew in wealth, and the Williamsburg Christmas Wreath became a symbol of a nation unified in Christmas tradition.
From year-to-year, wreath traditions adapt to fashion, political climate (which is a fashion), and taste. This year, 2021, there are excellent examples of the art. A few of my favorites are pictured in these comments. One of which, a Della Robia in wreath and tympanum at the Payton Randolph House, I am having approximated at Kevin Green’s “The Virginia Florist”, an excellent floral design shop in Alexandria, Virginia.**** This wreath features pomegranate, dried artichoke, oyster shell, and the Chesapecten Jeffersonius, a 5-million-year-old scallop shell, the state shell of Virginia. Williamsburg Christmas wreaths.
Here below, a how-to for creating a Williamsburg Christmas Wreath.
The Williamsburg Christmas Wreath in 5 Steps
1. Secure a wreath support of wood or metal (commonly available at local craft and art stores).
2. Weave in natural materials fresh or dried; holly, magnolia, mistletoe, pine, ivy … any conifer, grass, or decorative deciduous common to 18th Century Virginia.
3. Bright ribbons, stuffed toys, feathers of pheasant or sentimental bird of the 18th Century.
4. Pretend yourself a Palladian with a Palladian eye for symmetry in design. Alike a tasteful Georgian gardener, space clusters equal in interval, repeated in pattern.
5. Master the wee bits of Nature with the ruling logic of geometry, beautifully, as geometry is felt in a well-balanced, humane mind.
And, look to photographs, many photographs of Colonial Williamsburg Christmas wreaths where you will find the wreath best suited to your taste, budget, and craft-making ability.
* * *
* Joy to the World, based on Psalm 98: composition, George Frideric Handel; lyric setting, Lowell Mason (educator and musician who, it is said, formed the tradition of American music, and who set the hymn in its current form, circa 1820). Other music common to a Williamsburg Christmas might have included, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, “God Rest You Merry Gentlemen”, “The First Noel”, “I Saw Three Ships”, et cetera.
** In areas of New England, Christmas did not become a legal holiday until 1856.
*** Lucia della Robbia (1400 – 1482), Andrea della Robbia (1435 – 1525), et alia.
**** Alexandria, alike Williamsburg, is a Georgian town, though neither as mature nor as pure as is Williamsburg, paragon of our Georgian Tradition.
* * *
You are free to stroll the streets of Colonial Williamsburg year-round. To enter non-commercial buildings requires a day or an annual pass. Tickets in advance can be found by contacting Colonial Williamsburg. It is not too late to visit the Christmas wreaths of Williamsburg. The wreaths are eager to be seen, the designers are ambitious, and the homebodies are pleased to show forth their beautiful homes festooned with Williamsburg Christmas Wreaths. Williamsburg Christmas Wreaths.
Featured image: Statue of Lord Botetourt holding a Williamsburg Christmas Wreath. credit: M. Curtis
* * *