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The car Christmas wreath hangs on

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The wreath was all the rage in ancient Rome, functioning as laurel headgear for the worthies, but today we know it better as a festive yuletide icon. Apart from its religious symbolism, the wreath becomes a fabulous vehicle for showing the happy confluence of the beauty of nature and the eye of the artist.

Wreaths force us to look at needles, leaves, nuts and seedpods in a way that we would dismiss on the plant, and they should be valued for that alone. But there is one enduring if not widespread wreath ritual that goes mostly unnoticed, which is a shame.

I refer to the auto wreath, that ring of green that goes before the radiator grille. It is the Christmas wreath not so much in your face as in your rearview mirror. Today, the grille wreath barely registers with most motorists, and it is a gesture that seems to belong to the past, but there are still a number of souls who dutifully tie their wreaths to the front of their automobiles.

Is this classy, pretentious, corny, what? Who cares, if it spreads a little cheer where it is sorely needed: on the congested highways of Washington.

The problem for the wreath-on-wheels set is that most modern conveyances have none of the presence of automobiles of yore. Cars today are technologically advanced blobs, better in every way from the succession of old bangers that I have known, except in style and character. That aesthetic dig is just my view, of course, but I can’t imagine a Smart car riding down the road announced by a wreath. It would look like a gift box on the lam.

Some classic cars, it’s true, were distinguished by their ugliness. In the 1970s, a decade where fashion generally took a powder (of some sort or another), there were hideous station wagons, wrapped in acres of “wood” that eventually peeled. But they had grilles on which you could stick a wreath, and they had long roof rails “where you could wind garlands,” said John J. Jendza III, an automotive historian in Mount Clemens, Mich.

At the Dan and Bryan Christmas Trees lot on Massachusetts Avenue and 39th Street NW, Bryan Holler noted his first auto wreath sale the other day. For today’s smaller grilles, he advises a petite, 12-inch Advent or candle wreath. He prefers noble fir wreaths, and not just for automotive use. “The balsam wreath doesn’t seem to hold up quite as well.”

He does wonder, though, how a live wreath would fare as an automobile figure­head. “I think that would be a good place for an artificial wreath, because of the heat and the sun and things dropping back into the radiator.”

The radiator emits heat, but the bigger problem for a live wreath would be the constant, drying air movement. It would be “torture,” said Peggy Bier of Merrifield Garden Center in Northern Virginia. She too suggests a small artificial wreath.

But there are traditionalists, and quite a few customers at Johnson’s Garden Center in Northwest want auto wreaths and want them live, said David Martin, assistant general manager. “People think they can smell it in the car,” he said. It might help to get a pine-scented air freshener.

Martin admired one customer who bought an illuminated wreath and figured out how to hook the lights to the vehicle’s electrical system. It gets wackier. “We did have one gentleman a couple of years ago who had a blown-up reindeer on the top of his car.”

But this was no more odd than the lady who bought yards of velvet ribbon to gift-wrap her car, the way they did the Kennedy Center one year.

What Martin really finds weird is the idea that you can further adorn the mounted car wreath with a teddy bear or other stuffed animal. He sees it, but not on BMWs. As a class, BMW owners aren’t clamoring for wreaths. You’re more likely to find wreaths on SUVs and large American sedans, said Martin. All the cars in the Johnson lot were wreathless, but it’s still early in the season.

Truckers, conspicuously, put wreaths on their rigs, but that’s a bit different: The vehicles function as a second home for the drivers. What Martin has noticed is that carpenters, electricians and other tradesmen like to hang a wreath on the front of their big pickup trucks and vans. “It’s their way of softening things for the holidays,” he said.

I think the days of the auto wreath are numbered, not just because cars generally don’t have flashy grilles anymore. People looked to cars to project their status, their aspirations, their coolness. For decades, wreaths fit into that sensibility.

Younger ranks of motorists, at least the ones I talk to, view the car as little more than a necessary evil. They want something merely reliable and green. Green as in hybrid or fuel efficient, not green as in a coniferous doughnut doing 60 mph.

Follow @adrian_higgins on Twitter for updates on gardening and other cosmic events.

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