The materials traditionally used in Europe are holly and fir. Latterly, however, the simple foliage wreath has been superseded by fussy arrangements bedecked with cinnamon sticks, gilded fir cones and shrivelled orange slices, and finished with flourishes of glossy red ribbon.
For this reason, we invited two of London's leading floral decorators, Nikki Tibbles of Wild at Heart and Paula Pryke, to strip the wreath back to its venerable roots and come up with alternatives more suited to the contemporary vogue for clean and simple. The results - a pristine ring of baby's breath and a chunky circlet of studded crab apples - are as different as they are refreshing, but both designers agree that whatever materials you choose, they should be used abundantly. Nothing looks more miserable than a mean Christmas wreath.
Paula Pryke chose crab apples secured with haberdashery pins for her cheerful festive wreath. "Over Christmas we use cranberries too," she says. "You imagine they'll get squashy, but they don't. Both types of wreath last for about four weeks, and if you want to hang them, just tie a ribbon on to the frame." Detail is important. To achieve the best look, Pryke advises buying the longest variety of pins you can find (with pearl or multi-coloured heads) and then pushing them into a block of foam and spraying the heads with silver paint from an aerosol can.
Pryke uses a 30cm wire frame, but the smaller size of 20cm would work equally well. Wire frames are available from florist's shops, but you might need to order one in advance.
The next step is to cover the frame with sphagnum moss, which can be bought in bags from DIY superstores or garden centres.
Pad out the frame by binding the moss to it with wire, then wrap inexpensive red ribbon around it until there are no mossy gaps showing. Using the sprayed pins, secure each crab apple to the frame by pushing a pin through each crab apple into the moss, starting in the centre and working outwards. You'll find as you progress that the symmetry is gradually lost, and that you'll need to stick one crab apple into another.
Nikki Tibbles has brought the usually retiring gypsophila to centre stage solo for her 45cm table wreath centred with church candles. "Gypsophila is the most maligned of flowers because it's long lasting and cheap. Florists always team it with carnations as a filler, but used on its own, it's ethereal and beautiful. One kind of flower or foliage will always make a stronger statement than lots of different ones. Using just mistletoe would look lovely too."
The secret, says Tibbles, is to use masses of flowers and make the wreath fluffily luxuriant. Count on using five bundles, which will yield about 250 stems. The base is an oasis wreath, which is usefully backed with plastic making it ideal for table use. Buy it from a florist's shop (you may have to order it in advance), and soak it in water for at least an hour so that it is wet through. The gyp should have a good long drink as well.
All you do to cut the stems to the height you want - Tibbles used stems 15cm tall - and push them in around the wreath in bunches. Gypsophila gives a wonderfully gossamer-light result, but if you want something more solid as centrepiece, Tibbles suggests using white roses, keeping the stems sitably short and pushing them in snugly around the wreath in the same way.
Pack the candles tightly into the centre, using ones of different heights so that they will all be clearly visible from every angle around the table. Remember to water the Oasis every couple of days to keep the flowers perky. And for those itching to add the inevitable scarlet ribbon, Tibbles has one word: "Don't."
Crab apple or cranberry wreaths to order from Paula Pryke, 0171 837 7373, from pounds 75.
Gypsophila wreath to order from Wild At Heart, 0171 229 1174, pounds 150