Advent Wreath

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Advent Wreath

Many Christians enhance their observance of Advent with an Advent wreath. Although Germany's Lutheran community is credited with popularizing this custom sometime in the nineteenth century, its ultimate origins may lie in the pre-Christian practice of fashioning winter festival decorations from evergreen boughs. Whatever its origins, the symbols and customs connected with today's Advent wreath represent the spiritual significance of the Christian Advent season. Advent wreaths are used in both home and church observances.

Advent wreaths are usually fashioned out of greenery and are meant to lie on a flat surface or to hang horizontally from the ceiling. Four candles are incorporated into the wreath. They symbolize eternal life, as does the circular design of the wreath (see also Christmas Candles). Purple candles are often found in wreaths designed for church use, since purple is the liturgical color of the Advent season. Finally, a larger white candle, known as the Christ or Christmas candle, is placed in the center of the wreath or off to one side. The white color of this candle coincides with the liturgical colors for Christmas Day, white or gold. Some churches do not follow the liturgical color scheme, however.

Wreaths made for home observances employ candles of various shades. For example, red and white candles are often found in European Advent wreaths. On the first Sunday of Advent, the first of the four candles in the wreath is lit. On the second Sunday, the second candle joins the first. By the fourth Sunday in Advent all four candles glow in unison. Finally, on Christmas or Christmas Eve, the Christ candle flickers alongside the others. The ever increasing amount of light given off by the candles represents the spiritual illumination hoped for in the Advent season. The Christ candle, bigger and brighter than the rest, symbolizes the arrival of Jesus, "the light of the world" (John 8:12), and Christmas, the culmination of the Advent season. This lighting of candles at the darkest time of year may also stand for commitment to one's faith in times of darkness. In some home observances, family and friends pray, sing, or read spiritual texts by the light of the Advent wreath. An old German custom suggests adding one paper star to the wreath for each day in Advent. The star carries an Old Testament verse on one side and a New Testament verse on the other. Children might then be expected to memorize these verses.

Many assign special significance to each of the four wreath candles. Some say they represent the four gifts of the Holy Spirit: hope, joy, peace, and love. Others use them to represent the themes of the Advent season. Thus they may signify hope, preparation, joy, love, or light. Still others tell the story of Jesus' birth with the candles, allowing each to stand for some of the important figures associated with the Nativity, such as the prophets, angels, shepherds, and the Magi.

Further Reading

Augustine, Peg, comp. Come to Christmas. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1993. Slim, Hugo. A Feast of Festivals. London, England: Marshall Pickering, 1996. Thompson, Sue Ellen, ed. Holiday Symbols. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1998. Weiser, Francis X. The Christmas Book. 1952. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990.

Web Site

A site sponsored by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on the meaning and use of the Advent wreath in the Lutheran tradition of worship: mas_cycle.html America, Christmas in Colonial
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