The Advent wreath is a circular garland of various evergreen branches. On that wreath, four candles (and often a fifth) are arranged. During the Sunday services in the season of Advent, one additional candle on the wreath is lit each week, until, by the last Sunday before Christmas, all four candles are lit. Many Advent wreaths include a fifth candle in the centre which is lit on Christmas Eve or on Christmas Day. Each candle represents an aspect of the spiritual preparation for the coming of the Lord. The lighting of the candles can be accompanied by a Bible reading, devotional time and prayers.
The evergreens in the wreath generally symbolise continuous life, but additional meanings have been attached to individual types of branches.
- The laurel signifies victory over persecution and suffering.
- Pine, holly, and yew signify immortality.
- Prickly leaves of holly represent the crown of thorns used at the crucifixion.
- Cedar signifies strength and healing.
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.
Colours of the candles
In Catholic churches, the most popular colours for the Advent candles are violet and rose, corresponding to the colours of the liturgical vestments for the Sundays of Advent. Violet, (the traditional colour of penitential seasons) is the liturgical colour for the 1st, 2nd and 4th Sundays of Advent. Rose is the colour for the 3rd Sunday of Advent, known as Gaudete Sunday from the Latin word meaning “to rejoice”. Rose-coloured vestments are used on Gaudete Sunday as a pause to the penitential spirit of Advent.
In Protestant churches it is more common to use four red candles because rose vestments and decorations are not commonly used in Protestant churches. Blue is also a popular alternative colour for both Advent vestments and Advent candles, especially in some Anglican and Lutheran churches.
Names of the candles
- The candle lit on the 1st Sunday of Advent is typically called the Prophecy Candle in remembrance of the prophets, primarily Isaiah, who foretold the birth of Christ. This candle represents hope or expectation in anticipation of the coming Messiah.
- The candle lit on the 2nd Sunday of Advent typically represents love. Some traditions call this the Bethlehem Candle, symbolizing Christ’s manger.
- The candle lit on the 3rd Sunday of Advent (the pink or rose-coloured candle in some traditions) is customarily called the Shepherds Candle and it represents joy.
- The candle lit on the 4th Sunday of Advent, often called the Angels Candle, represents peace.
- On Christmas Eve, the white centre candle is traditionally lit. This candle is called the Christ Candle and represents the life of Christ that has come into the world. The colour white represents the purity of Christ, the sinless, spotless, pure Saviour. Also, those who receive Christ as Saviour are washed of their sins and made whiter than snow.
The concept of the Advent wreath originated among German Lutherans in the 16th Century. But, it is not until three centuries later that the modern Advent wreath took shape.
Research points to Johann Hinrich Wichern (1808–1881), a Protestant pastor in Germany as the inventor of the modern Advent wreath in the 19th century. 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 with 20 small red and 4 large white candles. A small candle was lit successively every weekday 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.