Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly

Have you noticed? We humans like to drape things.


Christmas garland in the great hall, Cotehele, Cornwall (Necrothesp CC BY-SA 3.0)

And while we think about draping garlands of pine and holly during this season, the impulse to “drape” goes deeper. A child likes nothing better than to drape a wagon or toy with whatever is at hand. I remember stringing everything imaginable onto my first bicycle. For that matter, children (and adults) are terrific at draping their clothes everywhere, but that’s a different impulse!

Seriously, though, think about how satisfying it is to drape objects: to smooth a cloth over a table, to cover up a lawn-mower with a canvas, or to drop strands of evergreens from the mantel. Draping is practical (protecting the lawn-mower). But draping for decoration stems from our desire for beauty, emanating deep in our souls.

The decorative impulse is God-given. We read with awe about the luxurious ornamentation of Solomon’s Temple. Medieval manuscripts with intricately drawn vines and gold-leafed illuminations still astonish us. And don’t we all nostalgically admire the embellishments that decorate the handwriting of our grandparents?

Yet we treasure all this in an era of ultra-non-decoration. I call it the “age of IKEA”—a world where flourish and flounce are pariahs. Quick, ask a teenager to name a beautiful object. Don’t be surprised if the answer is “the new iPhone.” The aesthetics of the day are sleek, angular, and utilitarian.

Fortunately, the human impulse to decorate is hard to suppress. Consider how many glitzy cases and accessories are marketed for today’s cell phones! Some even feature charms or emblems hanging (draping) from them. We still want to string garland over the things that matter to us.

Garland has another raison d’etre. When we chain things together, we seek to make something significant out of objects that are small and insignificant. Think how naturally and blissfully a child makes a chain from grasses or wildflowers. Think, too, about how an adult might take items like empty sugar packets and mindlessly twist them into chains, all while chatting around a table with friends.

Always loving etymology, I was glad to learn that the word garland comes from a Frankish verb weron (adorn, bedeck) which goes back to a Proto-Germanic root wei, to twist or to turn. Romance languages such as Old Spanish and Portuguese extended these roots into guarlanda and guirnalda.


Great Hall, Catherine Palace (MatthiasKabel CC BY 2.5)

Stepping back into history, certain architectural styles have been defined by the draping of decorative ingredients. Take, for example, one of the grandest periods in Western design, the glorious Baroque. From the 17th century, garland draped the interiors of Europe’s grand palaces. Aristocracy dined and danced before mirrors whose panes were framed by twists of gold-leafed garland; candles blazed from wooden or bronze sconces whose arms were shaped like garland, and countless pieces of heavy furniture—console tables, arm chairs, commodes—had edges trimmed with carved garland in what today we call the Louis XIV style.

All of this “drapery,” as well as the heavy brocade and symmetrical carved door-panels exploding with nymphs, swords, and helmets, became too oppressive for the young aristocrats of the 1730s. The new generation rediscovered nature (much as our Millennials have discovered stainless-steel austerity). They created a style we call rococo, a word whose etymology is usually taken back to the French word for shell (rocaille).


Rococo Style

Rococo came in as a breath of fresh air. Heavy Baroque furniture legs went on a diet; fastidious symmetry gave way to fanciful asymmetry; carved door panels now sported vines, flowers, and musical instruments. And botanically correct patterns of floral wallpaper softened the rooms. Garland still appeared, but in delicate strings that complemented the natural feeling.

By the end of the 18th century, the whimsy of rococo would yield to a more austere style we call neoclassicism (Louis XVI and the Napoleonic Empire). Were there still garlands? Yes, but garlands more in designs similar to commemorative crowns of silver laurel wreaths.

And that brings us directly to a core image of garland. What, I ask you, is more meaningful than the wreath of twisted thorns placed on Christ’s head when interrogated by Pontius Pilate? Dare we relate this “garland” to the fragrant boughs of pine so joyfully displayed at Christmastime? How can we not, especially since so much of traditional Christmas imagery foretells the path to Christ’s death and Resurrection.

So often, when we examine artistic expressions, we find ourselves engulfed in deeper spiritual meaning. And so it is with garland. We see common ingredients that help us weave our limited understanding into something higher. Creating beauty as we drape our garland allows us to recast our human yearnings into spiritual strivings.

So, in whatever quiet moments of reflection you have during Advent, look with special pleasure at the decorative expressions of the season. Rejoice in how many of them become windows through which heavenly light shines. Let us not be afraid to fling them open.