Driving into South Queensferry, I arrived at a late-seen junction where the main road … the one I was on, forked sharp right with a side road joining it on the left. Turning into the fork in the opposite direction to me, was a huge lorry which needed most of the road surface to get round the corner; a hearse, led by an undertaker on foot, was paused on the side road, waiting to come forward. It was instant decision time; it was, technically, my right of way and I decided that it was best if I kept going, freeing the space the lorry needed and so clearing the main road for the hearse to follow me. Almost immediately after I had acted on my decision, I was assailed by doubts. Had the lorry stopped to let the hearse proceed? Should I have accorded the same courtesy to it? Was I guilty of an act of extreme selfishness? I was in no hurry and following the funeral cortege some way at walking pace would not have materially affected my journey. I’ll probably never know; I think I mean that I hope I’ll never know. But what’s done is done; and there’s no going back on it now. And this trite observation succinctly described events in the life of the occupant of the hearse whose coffin … with an ornate wreath … I glimpsed in that brief encounter.
Today, as I write this column on the first day of Advent, wreaths are starting to adorn the doors and windows of homes and shops and are being seen on street lamp columns and office buildings. So why, in this season of Christian joy, does the wreath signify gladness when that same symbol indicates sadness at a funeral? Let’s go back to the earliest recorded times in mankind’s history. A tomb near the Etruscan city of Tarquinia … an old city on the western coast of Italy in the province of Lazio … has a well-known tomb dating back to 400–350 BC which is adorned with a wreath depicting ivy leaves and berries. We know that the Etruscan jewellers used wreaths in their designs for their artistry in gold and other precious metals. We know, too, that the Etruscans stamped wreath designs into their medallions and that their rulers wore wreaths as crowns. Unsurprisingly, the Romans who succeeded the Etruscans continued this tradition, using wreaths as a sign of a person’s occupation, rank, their achievements and status. These symbolic wreaths were often made of laurel; and their use may well have come from the earliest Olympic Games where they had been used to crown victorious athletes since 776 BC.
The use of evergreen laurel and of other evergreen plants reflected a respect for these plants’ ability to remain in leaf throughout the entire year, leading to evergreen trees and shrubs being seen as signs of good health, longevity and hope for the future. The Romans who became the rulers of much of Europe spread their culture wherever they went; and so the association of wreaths and standing in the community was introduced into pagan countries whose people already held evergreen plants in high esteem. The circular shape of the wreath … the shape of the life-giving sun … symbolised continuity and perfection; and, with the arrival of Christianity, the same virtues were copied into the new faith, with the holly wreath of sharp, pointed leaves gradually being held to represent the crown of thorns satirically placed on Jesus’ head for his crucifixion, the little red berries symbolising drops of blood. Nowadays, of course, while we continue, unknowingly, with the pagan belief of wreaths representing social status at funerals and with the Christian association of wreaths with the founder of their faith, we use a wide variety of materials in their manufacture. Most of us see Christmas wreaths as mere decorations, made from any suitable natural or manmade material. Artificial flowers, representations of birds, bells and all manner of decorations find a place, as do the traditional evergreen plants, albeit often plastic. And ‘fairy’ lights? Well, why not!