Season’s Giving: On the Past and Present of Wreaths

As the first day of winter approaches, a familiar feeling cannot escape us: Christmas is coming. Amidst the festive decor and popular images of a certain old man in red and white, greenery of multiple shades of candy canes and treats grace the holiday season. The most familiar is the Christmas tree with cheery presence and shiny and glittery baubles hanging from fresh, sweet and citrusy smelling boughs. Then, there are the wreaths that carolers find on the doors of those lucky to hear the melodic sounds of traditional yore.

Wreaths of the holiday can trace its origins as far back as the time of the Etruscan civilization. Varying from gold, metal, ivy, oak, myrtle, vines, olive leaves and other offerings from nature, these wreaths were used more as jewelry. The word wreath itself comes from Old English for writha meaning band. Just as in the past, arrangements of leaves, flowers, twigs, jewels and ribbons can be seen today. The name could not be more appropriate as these circular fixtures never stray from their traditional appearance too often, though there are some wreaths of a new fashion coming in the shapes of crosses for religious ceremonies and more seasonal shapes such as Christmas trees, doves, bells, reindeers, etc…

Across cultures, wreaths play a role in ceremonial events or used purely as decorations. During Christmas time, assortments of meticulously fashioned evergreens can be found nearly everywhere in the city. Known for its piney scent, this foliage is so resilient that some last throughout the most extreme of winters. Latin terminology even remembers it binomially as sempervirens meaning always green.

During the ancient times, the Greco-Roman world was renowned for wreaths worn as crowns that adorned the victors of the Olympic games. Forms of laurel and olive leaves were intricately woven together as they were the most popular. Steeped in Greek myth, the laurel is synonymous with the god Apollo, who rules over life and light.

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Courtesy of Pinterest.com

Nowadays, the arrival of the wreath visits town as early as Halloween and Thanksgiving. People buy harvest wreaths along with cornucopias and scarecrows as a part of the fall festivities. In celebration of a great harvest, Ancient Greece saw the weaving of rich blonde straw, abundant fruit and nuts woven in red and white wool as an amulet to guard against famine and a prayer for a fulfilling year of surplus in the next. The harvest wreaths then remained on the door for the whole year.

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Courtesy of Houzz.com

Something less familiar in name but more in sight is the Advent wreath. In Christianity, these wreaths tell of the return of Jesus Christ and its origins stem from 16th century Lutherans in Germany. Made of evergreens, the wreath lays horizontally with four candles on top and a fifth candle at the center. Red ribbons lay on top with pinecones or other arrangements are possible. The four candles are lighted on each Advent Sunday. The greenery represents everlasting life and hope for a new spring while holly can also be a part of the mixture as a sign of the crown of thorns Christ wore due to its prickly shape. The bright red berries of the holly means the blood that Christ shed.

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In a cemetery setting, wreaths remain the funerary rite that is just as regular as bouquets of flowers and pictures. Here, wreaths represent the passing of a loved one and the hope of life in the next. Earlier this December, Oakwood Cemetery was honored in being a part of Wreaths Across America. This tradition consists of laying the circles of evergreen on the graves of the fallen soldiers in the Field of Honor as well as other parts of the cemetery. These men were remembered for the great service they devoted to their country while family members and fellow soldiers and veterans saluted them.

This year, Oakwood Cemetery placed over 400 wreaths on the graves as family members, fellow soldiers and veterans saluted the men for their great service and devotion to their country. A great thanks goes out to Sue Purkis, the Volunteer Coordinator of the event. The cemetery has been involved in Wreaths Across America for the past four years, with numbers of volunteers and donations growing each year. While this year’s event has passed, the hope for next December is for more wreaths and community involvement. But another hope is also for people to remember the men and women whose bravery is the most wonderful gift to their country and that their spirit lives on.

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Funeral of Mattie Hood

It is unbelievable how much symbolism there is in a wreath. But that is what makes it simply wonderful. In another time, displaying a wreath in one’s home meant waiting for spring to arrive and Christ to rise. It also held more meanings such as wishes for a good harvest and a somber message of remembrance for the dead. While the holiday continues its catching glow of joy and thankfulness, one thing cannot be forgotten. A new year is around the bend with surprising changes and wonderment, but it is very much rooted in fond moments from long ago.

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Oakwood Cemetery’s Wreath

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Living in Love: The Story of Charles and Dorothy Vlaskamp

“I am dying to get home and take you in my arms again. You had better watch out darling…”

These are the words that captivated me as I read through stacks of letters from World War II from a soldier to his honey waiting at home. There are so many stories about love in literature that makes the heart swoon like The Notebook, Casablanca and The English Patient. But the one that resonates with me the most is the one I heard this morning. I had the pleasure talking to Charlene Stell, a volunteer at Oakwood Cemetery, about her parents who are buried in the Veterans’ Section. Charles Vlaskamp passed away in 1999 while Dorothy Vlaskamp also passed in 2014. Her father was a frequent visitor to Oakwood and enjoyed learning about the history of the Civil War. Charles and Dorothy married on March 27, 1944 in New York. It was a sudden decision when Dorothy took a train from California to see her lover, not knowing if he was going to be there. Once there, she married in the dress she arrived in to her waiting soldier. Soon, Charles shipped out to the next station as the war continued.

What is most endearing is the story of how they met. He was stationed in Twentynine Palms in California and on a night out with friends, the group decided to dance at a United Services Organization Center. She happened to be there at the right time. No one wanted to dance with her more than he did and another fellow. Coins were flipped and the rest is history. However, love is never easy in war and complications ensued. Charles would not be home for a very long time and marriage was a distant photograph. But their love never faded as he sent out letters to her wherever he went from Holland to Paris to Germany to Louisiana to wherever as he followed General George S. Patton’s path. Their love was tried by the adversities in life such as Charles going through a divorce when they first met and the war separating them thousands of miles from each other. But the two found a way to make it work.

Theirs is a story that the 1940’s relished because Charles and Dorothy reunited after the war ended in 1945. Home to a new America, the two built a life together lasting over three decades. Although the two divorced later in life, both remained great friends as well as wonderful parents and grandparents. In his spare time, Charles enjoyed a game of golf, read voraciously and nourished his gift for playing piano by ear. Dorothy remained on the crafty side of things and loved oil painting, making porcelain dolls and gardening. Stell remembered how her mother kept all of her father’s letters in a box. The letters accompany many stunning pictures of the duo in their younger years and are now preserved in an photo album created by Charlene’s daughter, Jennifer Knight, depicting their love story. Along with this is an album created in remembrance of Dorothy as a wife, mother, and grandmother. As for Charlene, she spends her days dedicating hours at Oakwood helping many whose loved ones are interred here and passersby with a sense of curiosity. She has also donated a generous gift by giving all of her parents’ letters and photo albums to Oakwood Cemetery as a way to preserve their love, memories so that others may remember how they once lived.

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