The History, Symbolism and Meaning of the Advent Wreath
The Advent Wreath
Walk into a Roman Catholic church during the four weeks immediately preceding Christmas and you will see the Advent wreath near the altar. Whether elaborate or simple, the Advent wreath's three purple and single pink candle are rich with symbolism. In a tradition dating back to Europe's dark days, the early Christians adapted pagan symbols and transformed them into a symbol rich with meaning to help families prepare for the coming of the Christ child at Christmastime. Today, you can find the Advent wreath in Catholic, Lutheran and some Protestant church, either much the same as it appeared in the Middle Ages or adapted to the traditions of the local congregation. If you've ever wondered why one candle is pink, why evergreen are used, or why this decoration is found in Catholic homes worldwide during the weeks before Christmas, here is the history, tradition, symbolism and prayers of the Advent wreath.
The History of the Advent Wreath
The earliest known use of the Advent wreath we see today dates from the Middle Ages. According to Catholic Education, pre-Christian cultures in what today is Germany and Scandinavia used a symbolic wreath of greens adorned with candles to symbolize the turning wheel of the year and the return of light to the new year. As the daylight hours dwindle in December and the days inch towards the Winter Solstice, European people sought to rekindle the light of the sun, and the lighting of candles on the wreath or circle of the year symbolized the returning of the sunlight. Early Christian people adopted this symbolism and transformed its meaning to the light of Christ returning to the year.
The Catholic calendar begins on the first Sunday of Advent. The symbolic lighting of the first purple candle of the Advent Wreath kindles joy in the hearts of the faithful as they eagerly await to the coming of the Christ child at Christmas. Jesus Christ is the "light that came into the world" (John 3:19-21) and the lighting of candles each week as part of a family or church prayer service reminds is that we are not waiting for Santa Claus to drop off presents - we are waiting for the biggest gift mankind has ever known, Jesus Christ.
By around the year 1600, both Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches had adopted the Advent wreath as part of the churches' formal preparations for Christmas. Other denominations followed suit, sometimes eliminating the rich color symbolism of the candles in favor of plain white candles.
Symbols and Symbolism of the Advent Wreath
The Advent wreath and traditions surrounding the Advent wreath are rich in symbolism and meaning.
- Circle or Wreath Shape: The wreath or circle shape is symbolic of everlasting life. It also echoes the pre-Christian symbolism of the return of the year, or the full cycle of the year. For Roman Catholics, the first Sunday of the liturgical year is the first Sunday of Advent. We have indeed come "full circle" and start the year anew by lighting the first Advent candle.
- Evergreens: Evergreens never lose their color even in the darkest days of winter. They are symbolic of everlasting life. Certain greens used in the Advent wreath also have traditional meanings. These include pine, holly and yew, which all symbolize everlasting life; laurel, which represents the reward (crown of laurels) after suffering, or the promise of heaven; holly, which represents Jesus' crown of thorns. Like the Victorian Christmas kissing ball, the use of various greens gives an otherwise frivolous decoration more meaning.
- Four candles: Even the use of four candles has symbolic meaning, and symbolizes the four 1,000 year periods since the creations of man to the birth of the savior.
- Purple candles: In the Roman Catholic church, purple is the color of penance and preparation. To prepare ourselves to receive the Christ child at Christmas, we express sorrow for our sins both through the sacrament of reconciliation ("going to confession") and through personal sacrifice and penance. We prepare our hearts and purify them to receive the bright light of Christ rekindled in our spirits at Christmastime.
- Pink candle: The pink candle is always lit on the third Sunday of Advent, which is called Gaudette Sunday. Gaudette is the Latin word for "joy." We are joyful because we are halfway through Advent to Christmas! We are joyful because Christ is coming - and pink is the symbolic color of joy.
The Advent wreath is lit both at church and at home. Advent prayers accompany the lighting of the wreath. Families practicing the Advent wreath custom typically follow these prayers and traditions. Some families change the order of who lights which candles, but the mother of the family always lights the rose or pink colored candle.
- First, the family gathers for dinner. The food is brought to the table. The Advent wreath is left in the center of the table.
- The blessing is spoken: "Bless us o Lord, and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive from thy bounty, through Christ our Lord. Amen"
Next, family members take turns lighting the Advent wreath. Some traditions have the following family members lighting the wreath on special Sundays:
- 1st Sunday - father
- 2nd Sunday - oldest child
- 3rd Sunday - mother
- 4th Sunday - father
Other traditional patterns for choosing family members to light the wreath include:
- 1st Sunday - youngest family member (other than mother or father)
- 2nd Sunday - oldest family member (other than mother or father)
- 3rd Sunday - mother
- 4th Sunday - father
Note that the third Sunday, the pink candle or Gaudette Sunday, is always lit by the mother of the family, no matter who lights the wreath candles the other weeks.
- The father of the family lights the Advent wreath on the first Sunday, and every day during the first week of Advent. He lights the first purple candle opposite the rose one on the wreath. Each night, the same first candle is lit. The father prays aloud that with the lighting of the Advent wreath, the light of Christ may be kindled in the hearts of the family.
- On the second Sunday of Advent, the oldest child in the family lights the previously lit candle and the next purple candle. The family prays together and asks the Holy Spirit to stir up the love of Christ in their hearts.
- On the third Sunday of Advent, the mother of the family lights the first two purple candles and the rose candle. The three candles are then lit during the third week of Advent.
- On the fourth Sunday of Advent, the youngest child (or in some countries, the father again) lights all four candles. The family prays for forgiveness of sins, and for hearts worthy of Christ. Up until Christmas, all four candles are lit nightly.
On Christmas day, some families replace the colored candles with one large white candle in the center. The large white candle symbolizes the light of Christ come into the world, and the fact that the time of preparation is over.
Advent Prayer - Make Christmas Meaningful
The symbolism and traditions of the Advent wreath are meant to bring people closer to God through preparation for the coming of his son. Symbols and rituals help people focus on the season and on meaningful preparation for Christmas. Other ways in which you can prepare your heart to receive the Christ child include:
- Scripture meditation: Read the accounts of the the birth of Christ. Read them slowly. Take one or two lines of text per day. Read them, then quietly meditate on their meaning.
- Purchase a book of Advent devotions and prayers. Use this book daily, preferably in the morning, before you get too busy, and spend more time in prayer daily.
- For Catholics - Pray the rosary daily, focusing on the Joyful Mysteries which include the Annunciation, Visitation and Nativity, great Christmas themes.
- For Catholics - attend Mass more frequently. Mass isn't just for Sundays. Daily Mass is a great way to focus on what really matters at Christmas, the birth of Christ!
Keep Christs in Christmas! Whether through increased prayers and meditations or the use of symbols such as the Advent wreath, Christmas is a time to prepare for the birth of the savior. Make your hearts ready to receive him!