The demure symbol of Christmas.
Until now, the Christmas wreath has provoked no public controversy whatsoever. One reason is that the wreath is the most demure of holiday symbols. One could imagine the row that would occur if a Christmas tree—say, the iconic one in Rockefeller Center—were cut down and carried off. Yet in 2002, when wreaths were removed from the necks of the lions that guard the New York Public Library (the statues had grown too fragile for decorations), the event elicited only a drowsy headline in the Daily News: "Lions' Wreaths No Mane Event." There is no laudatory carol called "O Christmas Wreath," and no call for a public wreath-lighting. The wreath's state of metaphysical uncertainty figures to end, however, thanks to Dana Wilner and Clare Weiss, two employees of the Department of Parks & Recreation. They're the curators of an art exhibit, now in its 23rd year, called "Wreath Interpretations." The idea, according to Wilner, is to "create an atmosphere of extending the idea of what could be a wreath."
So what could be a wreath? The history of the wreath is so tangled, so choked with symbolism, that the wreath has come to mean everything and nothing: a perfectly secular symbol of Christmas. Among the first people to embrace wreaths were ancient Persians, who wore diadems made of fabric and jewels—the wreath standing in for wealth and power. The Greeks awarded wreathlike headwear to early Olympic champions—the wreath, in that case, meaning victory. Germanic tribes usedwreaths to anticipate the end of the long winter, a tradition which under Christianity morphed into the familiar advent wreath, with candles lit in the weeks leading to the Christmas. For the current wreath craze in America, we may thank the European settlers who, anticipating the future colonialism of Martha Stewart, brought wreath-making techniques to the New World.
In Manhattan, there is a steady supply of wreaths, from those laid at Ground Zero to the more festive lobby concoctions. (It is in the Midtown lobby, where it stands boldly yet inoffensively, that the wreath appears to have found its cultural niche.) "Wreath Interpretations," which drew entries from artists and botanists from around the five boroughs, can accommodate almost any conception of the wreath. A "Wreath Interpretations" wreath may offer a political statement or simply a paean to the Parks Department (a frequent theme). It may be constructed from organic or manmade materials. It may be round or square. It may have a hole in the center or not. In fact, because of the somewhat atrophied state of New York's wreath community—the organic wreath-makers, in particular, were largely silent this year—anyone who takes the time to create a wreath, no matter how quasi-definitional, will likely find it displayed in "Wreath Interpretations."
The wreaths are hung in a bright room on the third floor of the ArsenalBuilding, in the southeast corner ofCentral Park. A visitor who steps out of the elevator will find himself surrounded by wreath interpretations. They are constructed from materials like metal chains, a horseshoe crab shell, Japanese rice paper, found twigs, a bicycle wheel, papier-mâché, black pussy willow, metal strips from an old loom, subway passes, wood shavings, plastic hangers, recycled umbrella material, and natural birch wood armature. The other day, a visitor paused in front of a piece called Wreath-tirement, by George P. Choma. The artist had covered a wreath in wrapping paper and adorned it with images of upbeat retired persons, like those that appear in the ads for Type II diabetes medication. Adjacent to Wreath-retirement but resting at the opposite end of the wellness spectrum, was Deborah Jessamy'sDeath Takes a Holiday, a wreath featuring a skull wearing a Santa cap.
These two proved to be among the more straightforward wreath interpretations. On the other hand, there was Molly Sullivan's wreath—twigs interspersed with small bits of typewritten paper—which was said to symbolize the "challenge of expressing natural phenomena through the written word." Of all the artists to have grappled with this age-old dilemma, Sullivan was perhaps the first to do so with a wreath. The most overtly political wreath belonged to the artist Audrey Zeidman, whose Holiday Hurricane Party had children (represented by plastic dolls) celebrating Christmas in a rush of churning water—a vision of the gloomy holiday facing New Orleans. At one point last week, the visitors enjoying "Wreath Interpretations" were outnumbered by Parks Department employees using the gallery as a lunchroom. "That's my favorite," said one female employee, nodding at Untitled, a woolen wreath dedicated to New York's textile heritage. "Ooh, yes, isn't it …" She seemed on the verge of further interpretation, but, thus defeated, returned to her lunch.
While the meaning of the wreath had been expanded—you could consider "Wreath Interpretations" a kind of wreath avant-garde—it was a little hard to imagine the pieces hanging above the hearth. (An exception was Madeline A. Yanni's Winter Wonderland, an exuberant mix that included tiger branches, potpourri, grapevine, preserved juniper, and something called "mood moss.") Indeed, holding up wreaths for artistic inspection seems to defeat the purpose of wreath, which divines its virtue not only from its meaninglessness but from its modesty. In public, the eyes tend toward the Christmas tree, the manger scene, the menorah. When you're trying to survive the War on Christmas, it's best to work undercover.
Bryan Curtis, Slate's "Middlebrow" columnist, writes for Grantland, Texas Monthly, and Newsweek. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph, "Untitled," courtesy Molly Sullivan.