The Serpent’s Tail

A wreath made from beach findings on Friday Harbor on San Juan Island here, in Puget Sound, in the Salish Sea.

Toward the end of the 16th century, a word was coined from the root word “wer” meaning to twist or bend from which the word “wreath” came.  It was a garland twisted around into a circle.  Before a wreath was a wreath, the word had originally emerged from a series of Dutch and French words which had referred to anger.  The twisted nature of being angry.  The circular way of being angry.  The serpent eating its own tail is one of the first “wreaths” in the human experience of art and form.

One of my favorite definitions of anger is “a punishment we exact on ourselves for the mistakes of others.”

This wreath was made by a local artist here in Puget Sound.  I found it on San Juan Island in a village called Friday Harbor, in a bar, and its elements spoke to me.  The wreath incorporated elements of the beaches in these islands, filled as they are with driftwood, mosses, shells, old bones and still older stones.

We are soon to enter the season of “wreaths” in both ecclesial and social terms.  Churches and many of their people will want to create the Advent Wreaths – that great countdown to Christmas – the enfleshment of God. But outside churches, regular people will be fashioning wreaths for their front doors.

There are two theories behind the origins of the wreath.  One is that it was begun in Greece and Rome where wreaths were formed as head-dresses in order to show rank and occupation (The laurel wreath being one such example.)  The second theory is that the wreath is a Christian re-invention indicating the circle of life and its symbolism of eternity. 

As a small child, I have fond memories of Williamsburg at Christmas time.  Nestled in Virginia, it was the nation’s first “Capitol” and to this day, celebrates the holidays with beautiful wreaths on the doors of 18th century homes and businesses as was their original custom along-side candles in windows – a custom I have retained in my home to this very day.

As we prepare for preparing for Christmas, wreaths will be an important aesthetic part of our preparations.  Flat on a table with four or five candles, or hung on a door to celebrate life, the wreath will convey its message depending on the viewer’s point of view.  But I admit to being intrigued by the word’s first meaning in anger and its first Celtic and Roman depictions – the serpent eating its own tail.

There is a lot of anger in the air.  Anger about hopes unfulfilled abound at Christmas time.  Anger in politics is reaching a fevered pitch. Anger in the Church about the next generations de-friending it is causing steam to scream out of the cracks in the ecclesial pressure-cooker of its current molting. And at Thanksgiving and Christmas, families will let anger infect seasonal joy with too much effort to get the holidays “right” – the resulting exhaustion, combined with alcohol and coffee will be its own relational train-wreck.

What if anger really is little more than “a punishment we exact on ourselves for the mistakes of others.” What if we could let go of the angers in our life, forgive the stupidity and carelessness of others’ past mistakes and choose peace on this earth?

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