Commemorative ceremonies in honour of those who perished in defense of their country often incorporate a wreath laying ceremony. The most traditional wreath is constructed from laurel leaves arranged in a circular intertwined pattern accompanied by a dedicatory card. As a motif in bronze, wood or stone, laurel wreaths also adorn many of Australia's war memorials.
The use of wreaths, especially constructed from laurel leaves, continues a tradition that dates back to antiquity. The word wreath simply refers to a circlet of flowers, boughs, or leaves worn on the head, placed on a memorial, or hung as a decoration. Pre-dating the laurel wreath, the ancient Persians wore fabric headbands known as "diadems" which were often decorated with jewels.
The Greeks gave a wreath of laurels to winners in the Pythian games, and beginning in 776BC to victors in the Olympic Games. The most favoured origin for the practice is rooted in Greek mythology when the beautiful young nymph, Daphne, daughter of the river god Peneus, rejected the none-too-subtle advances of Apollo, son of Zeus. Daphne, in fear for her virtue, prayed to her father for protection. Peneus took the rather drastic but effective step of turning Daphne into a laurel tree on the bank of his river.
Apollo, previously struck by Cupid's arrow, was hopelessly in love with Daphne but had to make do with plucking branches from his transformed beloved in order to make a wreath in memory of her beauty and his love for her. The appropriated laurel wreath, now known as Daphne, was subsequently used for crowning champions who excelled in the ancient Olympic Games. Of course, such honours were not easily forgotten and it was not long before the wearers hung their treasured wreaths upon doorways and walls.
The Romans adopted the laurel wreath and its association with success, placing them on the heads of their successful military generals during a triumph - a public celebration in ancient Rome to welcome a returning victorious commander and his army.
Laurel, in modern times, is a symbol of victory and peace. St. Gudule, in Christian art, carries a laurel crown. Memorials dedicated since the terrible losses inflicted during the First World War often incorporate a laurel wreath as part of commemorative embellishment, and fresh wreaths containing laurel may be placed on memorials by dignitaries on important days such as Remembrance Day and ANZAC Day. The fact that the tree is an evergreen is further symbolic, suggesting fidelity to the memory and recognition of sacrifice made by the Nation's youth. Aspects of fidelity and achievement associated with laurel have made it ideal for incorporation within a number of military badges and devices, as seen in the accompanying World War Two Royal Australian Airforce badge, worn by 35445 Flying Officer Roy Maxwell Madill RAAF.
The RSL Meritorious Service Medal is the highest award that may be made by the League to a member as an honour over and above Life Membership. The award includes a lapel badge in the form of a life member's badge surrounded by a laurel wreath which is worn by recipients in place of their previously awarded life member's lapel badge.
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