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advent wreath stjohnscamberwellorgauI remember how bewildered I was as a young Catholic teenager going to church one December morning during the early 1970s and seeing a wreath with candles on a stand near the altar.

My parents — along with most of the congregation — did not know what it was, either.

As Mass began, the priest explained that we were going to light the Advent wreath. That hardly solved the puzzle of what it was and WHY.

For years, I did not like them. My mother said they were a Vatican II innovation. She was not wrong. Neither my parents nor I were interested in Vatican II innovations. Most took us away from the mysterium tremendum my parents had grown up with, something that had been taken away from me forever.

I became an Episcopalian 12 years later. Early in December that year, my mother asked me if our church had an Advent wreath. I said, ‘No’. She said, ‘Good’.

These days, Advent wreaths are in churches of all denominations. My present Anglican church has one, too.

So, we must be resigned to Advent wreaths. I’m still somewhat ambivalent about them, but, by now, at least two generations have grown up with them.

Symbolism

Advent wreaths can be used in schools and private homes as well as at church.

The QTree has an excellent post about the Advent wreath along with several related photographs. The designations of the different candles came as news to me (emphases in the original):

The most common Advent candle tradition involves four candles. A new candle is lit on each of the four Sundays before Christmas. Each candle represents something different, although traditions vary. The four candles traditionally represent hope, faith, joy, and peace. Often, the first, second, and fourth candles are purple; the third candle is rose-colored. Sometimes all the candles are red; in other traditions, all four candles are blue or white. Occasionally, a fifth white candle is placed in the middle and is lit on Christmas Day to celebrate Jesus’ birth.

The first candle symbolizes hope and is called the “Prophet’s Candle.” The prophets of the Old Testament, especially Isaiah, waited in hope for the Messiah’s arrival.

The second candle represents faith and is called “Bethlehem’s Candle.” Micah had foretold that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, which is also the birthplace of King David.

The third candle symbolizes joy and is called the “Shepherd’s Candle.” To the shepherd’s great joy, the angels announced that Jesus came for humble, unimportant people like them, too.

The fourth candle represents peace and is called the “Angel’s Candle.” The angels announced that Jesus came to bring peace–He came to bring people close to God and to each other again.

The (optional) fifth candle represents light and purity and is called “Christ’s candle.” It is placed in the middle and is lit on Christmas Day.

We are a people of promise. For centuries, God prepared people for the coming of his Son, our only hope for life. At Christmas we celebrate the fulfillment of the promises God made—that he would give a way to draw near to him.

Advent is what we call the season leading up to Christmas. It begins four Sundays before December 25, sometimes in the last weekend of November, sometimes on the first Sunday in December.

My local Anglican church has red candles with a white candle in the middle for Christmas. This seems to be a more Protestant than Catholic colour scheme, even though our church follows the liturgical colour tradition of purple during this time.

The Revd William Saunders, writing for another Catholic website, Catholic Education Resource Center, has more in ‘The History of the Advent Wreath’. This has more information of which I was unaware (emphases mine):

The symbolism of the Advent wreath is beautiful. The wreath is made of various evergreens, signifying continuous life. Even these evergreens have a traditional meaning which can be adapted to our faith: The laurel signifies victory over persecution and suffering; pine, holly, and yew, immortality; and cedar, strength and healing. Holly also has a special Christian symbolism: The prickly leaves remind us of the crown of thorns, and one English legend tells of how the cross was made of holly. The circle of the wreath, which has no beginning or end, symbolizes the eternity of God, the immortality of the soul, and the everlasting life found in Christ. Any pine cones, nuts, or seedpods used to decorate the wreath also symbolize life and resurrection. All together, the wreath of evergreens depicts the immortality of our soul and the new, everlasting life promised to us through Christ, the eternal Word of the Father, who entered our world becoming true man and who was victorious over sin and death through His own passion, death, and resurrection.

The four candles represent the four weeks of Advent. A tradition is that each week represents one thousand years, to sum to the 4,000 years from Adam and Eve until the Birth of the Savior

The purple candles in particular symbolize the prayer, penance, and preparatory sacrifices and good works undertaken at this time. The rose candle is lit on the third Sunday, Gaudete Sunday, when the priest also wears rose vestments at Mass; Gaudete Sunday is the Sunday of rejoicing, because the faithful have arrived at the midpoint of Advent, when their preparation is now half over and they are close to Christmas. The progressive lighting of the candles symbolizes the expectation and hope surrounding our Lord’s first coming into the world and the anticipation of His second coming to judge the living and the dead.

The light again signifies Christ, the Light of the world. Some modern day adaptions include a white candle placed in the middle of the wreath, which represents Christ and is lit on Christmas Eve. Another tradition is to replace the three purple and one rose candles with four white candles, which will be lit throughout Christmas season.

History

A Catholic website, TIA (Tradition in Action), has a good article: ‘What Is the Origin of the Advent Wreath?’. It appears that I am not alone in my ambivalence about it.

The article was prompted by a reader’s question (emphases mine):

Dear TIA,

Where did the Advent wreath originate?

In our church this year there is no Advent Wreath because the priest said it is pagan. Many true Catholics are upset over this. The wreath traditionally has been part of the Catholic Church for over 400 years so where would this idea come from? Please help!

It appears that wreaths in general, although pagan in origin, first appeared in churches during the Dark Ages — so, centuries before the Reformation:

Perhaps your priest was referring to the wreath itself as pagan, since some histories report that the evergreen wreath originated in the pagan times of Sweden, Norway and Denmark. Evergreens were gathered into round piles with candles placed upon them, which represented the yearly cycle, and so on. Such data, however, are not trustworthy since they generally come from wicca sites, which habitually pretend that every Christmas custom or symbol is pagan, baptized and adapted by Catholics.

From what we could verify, wreaths of evergreens were used in the 7th century in Catholic baptismal ceremonies. In early medieval Europe it was also used in weddings, the bride and bridegroom being crowned with wreaths to symbolize their victory over the temptations of the flesh. By the late Middle Ages, garlands and wreaths were being used as Christmas décor in much of Catholic Europe.

For Catholics the evergreen is symbolic of life because its needles are green and alive even as the world grows dark and plants die back. The circle wreath, which has no beginning or end, symbolizes the eternity of God. The wreath is a good Catholic symbol, and, in our opinion, should not be rejected because of a possible previous pagan usage.

The article acknowledges that the Advent wreath is a Protestant creation, more about which below.

As for the Catholic Vatican II connection:

The Advent Wreath was used strictly in homes and schools among Catholics, never in Catholic churches because there were no official liturgical prayers or ceremonies in the Rituale Romanum, the Church’s official book of prayers and blessings.

With the innovations of Vatican II, a blessing of the wreath for the first Sunday of Advent to be said before Mass was included in the Book of Blessings for those countries that requested its inclusion. The wreath is to be lit before Mass at the first Sunday of Advent, and no prayers are said on the last three Sundays.

The Church of England also has a short prayer of blessing for the first candle.

The Advent wreath appears to be a northern European tradition:

Many American Catholics are surprised to learn that this custom is relatively unknown in Latin American countries, and even in Italy and Spain.

TIA advises:

In our opinion, it seems that the custom of the Advent Wreath may be adopted by those who feel an attraction to it. But its use should be restricted to their homes. It is not a liturgical practice of the Catholic Church that should be included in official ceremonies.

I tend to agree.

Protestant origins

Wikipedia has a delightful story about a Lutheran pastor who devised the modern Advent wreath in the 19th century. That said, an older version was already in use in Lutheran churches soon after the Reformation:

The concept of the Advent wreath originated among German Lutherans in the 16th Century.[7] However, it was not until three centuries later that the modern Advent wreath took shape.[8]

Research by Prof. Haemig of Luther Seminary, St. Paul, points to Johann Hinrich Wichern (1808–1881), a Protestant pastor in Germany and a pioneer in urban mission work among the poor as the inventor of the modern Advent wreath in the 19th century.[9] During Advent, children at the mission school Rauhes Haus, founded by Wichern in Hamburg, would ask daily if Christmas had arrived. In 1839, he built a large wooden ring (made out of an old cartwheel) with 20 small red and 4 large white candles. A small candle was lit successively every weekday and Saturday during Advent. On Sundays, a large white candle was lit. The custom gained ground among Protestant churches in Germany and evolved into the smaller wreath with four or five candles known today. Roman Catholics in Germany began to adopt the custom in the 1920s, and in the 1930s it spread to North America.[10] Professor Haemig’s research also indicates that the custom did not reach the United States until the 1930s, even among German Lutheran immigrants.

In Medieval times Advent was a period of fasting during which people’s thoughts were directed to the expected second coming of Christ; but in modern times many have forgotten this meaning and it has instead been primarily seen as the lead up to Christmas, and in that context Advent Wreath serves as a reminder of the approach of the feast.

Image credit: Wikipedia.

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I learned a lot researching the symbolism and history behind the Advent wreath. I hope that you did, too.

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