I love making things with my hands.
Before I started my consultancy, I was a professional artist and calligrapher, and before that I was an avid knitter.
One of my favorite recent jobs was for a craft machine company, Cricut, best known for making electronic cutting machines. Not only was I paid for strategic advising, design, and facilitation, but the client also sent me a couple of said machines, and I soon found a new outlet for my creative expression: paper flowers.
It may seem strange, but the wreath in the photo above owes
its existence to my expertise in virtual experience design!
I finished that wreath on Sunday, just in time to gift it to my mom for Mothers Day.
My husband and I walked in the door, with the wreath hidden behind us, then pulled it out to show her, with a big, “Happy Mothers Day!”
My mom’s eyes got big, she smiled, she thanked me, she said how beautiful the wreath was… and then she said, “But of course I can’t put it up.”
“Why not?”, I asked.
“Because we’re Jewish,” she said. “Wreaths are Christian. We never put up wreaths when you were growing up, don’t you remember?”
Even my dad (who was raised Presbyterian, but converted when I was in my late 30s) chimed in, “Yes, that’s right! We couldn’t possibly put up a wreath.”
Huh. Well, all righty then.
I took the wreath home, wondering if I would be sending a signal of Christianity if I were to hang the wreath in my own house!
Thinking of Ted Lasso, I decided to be curious, not judgmental, and do a bit of research.
What is the relationship of wreaths and Judaism? Are they truly a Christian symbol?
I had actually assumed that wreaths were a pagan symbol that had been appropriated by Christianity, but it seems, in fact, that wreaths have long been a part of Jewish culture as well, if not a major one:
Wreaths as decoration appear on the synagogue ceiling tiles of Dura Europus, a 2000 year old synagogue discovered in Syria, and were carved into the second century synagogue at Capernaum. Jewish use of wreaths was so common that in the 4th century C.E., Ephrem the Syrian, an early church leader, issued a warning to Christians to avoid the use of wreaths, since it “is the custom of Greeks and Jews”.
Wreaths are not a major motif in Judaism, but Jews used wreaths as holiday decorations and wedding accessories even in antiquity, when the Temple stood in Jerusalem. Although today wreaths are strongly associated with Christmas, Jews made wreaths for Shavuot and other festive occasions before the birth of Jesus.
Fascinating! Early Christians were told to avoid using wreaths because they were so common among Jews! Who knew?
But of course, times change… The meanings of symbols can evolve over time and space.
Had all wreaths — not just evergreen wreaths — become associated with Christmas in modern times? Did everyone but me make this association?
My very non-scientific poll, and scan of a forum thread, revealed not a single person who associated a non-evergreen wreath as a Christian symbol and offensive to Jews. Several people expressed surprise at the idea that a wreath was a Christian thing. And a few Jews acknowledged that they hung wreaths in their homes.
Granted, that was a small sample size of perhaps 25 people, but still, I have yet to find someone besides my parents who associates wreaths, in general (as in, non-evergreen wreaths), with Christianity.
My best guess is that something happened in my mom’s family of origin that linked wreaths and Christianity, and once linked, the two could never be unlinked.
The specific and personal became generalized and global in her mind.
But I’m not interested in changing my mom’s point of view.
If wreaths hold meaning for her, they hold meaning for her. Period.
And while it might be interesting to find out why (and I’m certainly curious!), the larger issue is the simple fact that the meaning exists.
The fact is, everyone has associations, hot buttons, triggers. There is no way to eliminate all of them.
What we can do is simply do our best to know our audience.
In this case, I could have checked with my mom before presenting her with my gift.
Yes, it takes away some of the romance out of gift-giving, but let’s face it, it’s probably not the best idea to surprise someone with something designed to hang on a wall or door anyway, simply because items like this reflect personal taste, and take up space.
If I had asked first, and gotten to know her gifting wants and needs, this entire interaction would have gone so much more smoothly, and I would have been able to give my mom a gift she would have actually wanted and been delighted with.
Knowing your audience — empathy — is one of the 6 key skills I teach in my Communicating for Influence (virtual) program:
- Active listening
- Authentic collaboration
- Strategic storytelling
This is the active learning program I initially piloted for high-level research teams at Facebook, iterated with other Facebook teams, and have gone on to run so many at Facebook (now Meta) that I’m starting to lose count.
The program uses my F.U.N. Method™ to help team members learn new skills and behaviors, including how to apply empathy to communicate more effectively in any situation.
Where my mother is concerned, however, it seems I need to do a better job taking a dose of my own medicine.
The good news on that front is that I can always make more flowers.
Interested to learn more? Message me to chat about how I can use my signature system to help your employees infuse connection, joy and delight into virtual meetings, trainings and events at your workplace.
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