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Christmas traditions: Holly wreaths

To teach about the origins and symbolism of the Christmas holly wreath.

by The Revd John Challis

Suitable for Key Stage 3


To teach about the origins and symbolism of the Christmas holly wreath.

Preparation and materials

  • Qholly wreath, preferably an imitation one but a real one will work just as well.
  • The quotation from St Paul is from 1 Corinthians 9.24.


  1. Tell the students that years ago you used to be cool and trendy. Tell them that you think that they are cool. When you were young it was cool not to believe in Christmas. Atheists and agnostics would always say that Christmas was just a pagan festival.

    Today people still celebrate Christmas but have no real idea of what they are doing. There are many traditions that they keep without knowing why. Like this holy wreath!
  2. Show the holly wreath and ask the students where it should be hung. The obvious answer is on the front door. With luck, someone may say on your head. If not, then place the holly wreath on your head.

    While the students look at you bemused or are laughing, you can comment about how cool you look. You can ask if this is where a holly wreath should be worn. When they say no, say they are half right. Actually, this is exactly where a wreath of leaves should be worn: not a holly wreath, though.

    Refer to the Olympics and say that in the original Greek Games the winners of the races would be awarded a wreath (originally an olive wreath, later a laurel wreath) to show that they were victors. The wreath was then worn on the head.
  3. But why a holly wreath at Christmas, and why on our doors? As with many Christmas traditions, the origins are uncertain, going back to pre-Christian superstitions and customs.

    In ancient times, holly was a plant of great importance in northern Europe and features in many legends. The Celts thought that its sharp pointed leaves gave protection against evil spirits, and it was put on doors to protect the home from the spells of witches and demons.

    To Druids, the evergreen leaves were a symbol of eternal life.

    To Romans, holly was associated with the god Saturn. During the midwinter festival of Saturnalia, holly was included in the offerings made to Saturn.
  4. The tradition of having holly wreaths as Christian symbols at Advent (the four weeks leading up to Christmas) seems to have first started in Germany, in the sixteenth century, among members of the Lutheran Church.

    The circle and the sharp leaves reminded people of Jesus’ crown of thorns; the red berries were like drops of blood.

    The evergreen leaves symbolize the eternal life won for us by Jesus when he was victorious over death.
  5. Today, Christian families sometimes put a wreath on their front doors as a sign of Jesus’ victory. His birth was the beginning of the victory that he would win over all that is bad in our world.

    In the Christmas season, we not only place the wreath on doors but also on graves. A wreath at Christmas is like a sign of the cross.
  6. When St Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he said, ‘Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it.’ Run the race of life – run and win the victory.
  7. (Place the wreath on your head.) Whenever you see a wreath, perhaps you won’t place it on your head, but you’ll know it stands for the victory and deliverance from all evil powers that Christians believe Jesus won by his death on the cross.

Time for reflection

Christmas is one of the most joyful days in the year; think about all that you are hoping for.

How could you contribute to the day to make it a real victory for everyone in your family?

May the grace of Christ, our Saviour,
and the Father's boundless love,
with the Holy Spirit,
be upon us all this Christmas time.


‘The holly and the ivy’ or any other Christmas carol or song.

Publication date: December 2012   (Vol.14 No.12)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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