Deconstructing the Advent Wreath
Advent is a good time to remind ourselves that many of the Christian symbols we take for granted have rich meaning that often spans centuries. Ritual symbols are not merely designations. Rather, they are vessels that contain storied wisdom and the echoes of history. The tradition of the Advent wreath is no exception
While Christians in the Middle Ages were said to have used wreaths with candles during the Christmas season, historians tell us the first Advent wreath was conceived in the early 1800s by a Protestant pastor named Johann Hinrich Wichern, a man known for his mission work among the urban poor.
One year, around 1830, Johann noticed that during the month of December, the children in his mission school, Rauhes Haus, would inquire daily about whether Christmas had arrived. In response to their impatience and constant questioning, he fashioned a “wreath” from the wheel of a cart. It featured 20 red candles and 4 white ones. To help the children mark time in the buildup to Christmas, a new red candle was lit each weekday, increasing the number lit as each day passed. White candles were reserved for Sundays.
Note: Today, some modern lighting fixtures draw upon Johann’s design concept. Fixtures of this type are now called “Wichern Wreaths.”
While the idea of the Advent wreath caught on in Protestant churches, it didn't reach the United States until the 1920s. It is around this time that Roman Catholics began to adopt the ritual, likely learned from German Catholic and Lutheran immigrants.
As the custom evolved, people began to source materials from the same natural resource used so dominantly for Christmas decoration: the pine tree.
a circle of evergreen
From the fragrant pine, comes its boughs. The wreath’s evergreen garland signifies continuous life with no beginning or end, echoing the symbolic meaning of the wreath’s circular shape. Evergreen is also said to signify victory over persecution and suffering.
Pinecones may suggest hope and the seed of life. The small vulnerable pinecone points to the promise of a large towering tree. Holly and berries may also be added. Their red color points ahead to Jesus’ sacrifice, death, and resurrection.
The Advent candles represent the fragile light of hope amidst the deep dark of the season. As Christ’s Advent, or “coming” draws nearer, a new candle is lit each week, combining with the candle of the passing week. Christ, referred to as the “Light of the World” is seen in direct contrast to the bleak darkness of sin. Think of the lighting of the weekly candle as a spiritual contemplation of your role in the story that is about to unfold.
The first candle, which is purple or blue, symbolizes hope. It is referred to as the Prophecy Candle in remembrance of the prophets, especially Isaiah, who foretold the birth of Christ. It represents the expectation felt in anticipation of the coming Messiah.
The second candle, also purple, represents faith. It is called the Bethlehem Candle as a reminder of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem. Their experience of preparation was surely nothing like that of today when one looks forward to the birth of a child. Joseph and Mary undoubtedly wanted to be sure their son would have the necessary food, clothing, and shelter for life in this world. But, while they were getting ready for Jesus’ birth, they were interrupted by a Roman census. By law, Joseph had to go to Bethlehem, his ancestral town, and he brought Mary with him. It is an understatement to say the 90-mile journey was probably an annoyance they could have done without, as Mary was nearing the end of her pregnancy.
The third candle is pink and symbolizes joy. It is called the Shepherd’s Candle, and is pink because rose is a liturgical color for joy. The third Sunday of Advent is Gaudete Sunday and is meant to remind us of the joy that the world experienced at the birth of Jesus, as well as the joy that the faithful have reached the midpoint of Advent.
On the fourth week of Advent, we light the final purple candle to mark the final week of prayer and penance as we wait for the birth of our Savior. This final candle, the Angel’s Candle, symbolizes peace. It reminds us of the message of the angels: “Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men.”
The optional fifth candle, placed in the “center of creation,” represents light and purity and is called Christ’s Candle. It is lit on Christmas Day.
Advent ends at the time of the first Christmas Eve Mass, so one may still light the wreath’s candles on December 24th. After that, it is recommended the white candle is lit. The other candles may be swapped out for white candles, which may also be lit during the Christmas season, which ends on January 6th.
Advent, the season of darkness, gives rise to light, ever increasing.
While we wait, we hope…and we light candles.