The Advent wreath, at first glance, is just a pleasing seasonal decoration, much like strings of lights or mistletoe. A ring of evergreens, five bright candles—what could be more appropriate for the Christmas season? Not until worshipers understand how the wreath symbolizes the meaning of the Advent season do they begin seeing in the evergreen and candles a visual reminder of the coming of Christ.
A Season of Longing
Sometime after the sixth century the church designated the four Sundays before Christmas as Advent. This season, which begins the liturgical year, was not intended to be a merry four–week celebration of Christmas. Such celebration was reserved for Christmas Day and Christmastide, the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany (January 6). Advent was, in contrast, an echo of Israel’s deep longing for the promised Messiah. As such, the season, also known as Winter Lent, called for fasting and penitence.
However, Advent was never as austere as regular Lent; joy always seemed to be rippling just beneath the surface. And on the third Sunday of the season, believers were invited to break their fast and rejoice.
This joining of penitence and joy during Advent continued in later centuries. Even though the church demanded self–examination during this season, it also, with an undercurrent of joyful
anticipation, encouraged believers to focus on the four comings, or "advents," of Christ: the Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah, the birth of Christ in Bethlehem, the presence of Christ in the hearts of believers, and the second coming.
"A Great Light"
Today Advent is still a time of joyful anticipation, of studying Bible passages that reveal the comings of Christ. For many churches it is also a time for lighting candles in an Advent wreath, a visual aid that helps the congregation better see and understand the meaning of the Advent season.
The wreath, first of all, has a circular shape. The circle, without beginning or end, reminds us of Jesus’ divinity, of his sacrifice in becoming Immanuel, and of his unending love and care for us.
The evergreens, a sign of life amid the starkness of winter, point to Christ’s redemptive gift of life, now and forever. With the assurance of this gift, we can eagerly pray for Christ to return and to restore all of creation.
The Advent candles call forth memories of the contrast between darkness and light—between the darkness of sin and separation from God and the rich messianic promise that God’s people will see a "great light."
The four Advent candles in the wreath are lit successively, one candle the first week, two candles the second week, and so on. On Christmas the center, Christ candle is lit. This tradition of increasing the number of candles each week sharpens our anticipation as it reminds us that we are getting closer and closer to the celebration of Christ’s birth. Jesus announced himself as the completion of Isaiah’s promise of "a great light" when he said, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life" (John 8:12, NIV). The full blaze of light in the Advent wreath on Christmas represents the fulfillment of this promise.
Colors and Themes
The color of the Advent candles varies. Some churches use white for purity, some use red for joy. However, most Advent candles are violet or purple, the traditional color of the Advent season—a color that signifies penitence and the royalty of the coming King.
In some churches one rose–colored candle is also used to suggest the Rose of Sharon. Traditionally this candle is lit on the third Sunday, a time of joy.
The center candle, the Christ candle, is always white. It is lit on Christmas, the end of Advent. While the Advent wreath and its four candles are discarded after Christmas, the Christ candle is used throughout Christmastide.
Some churches teach a special significance for each of the four Advent candles, but there is no longer a common tradition of themes. The following are typical of the scriptural themes associated with the candles: the first candle, called the Prophecy candle, recalls the Old Testament promises of the coming Messiah; the second, the Bethlehem candle, focuses on the preparations of Mary and Joseph for the actual birth of Christ; the third, the Shepherd’s candle, emphasizes the joy of finding the Christ child and the witnessing of this joy to others; and the fourth, the Angel’s candle, reminds us of Christ’s divinity and of the blessings intended for all people by his coming.
Using the Wreath
The Advent wreath is appropriate for worship in both church and home. To encourage its use by families, some churches begin Advent with a family night. The congregation, both parents and children, gather to share a meal, sing some carols, and construct Advent wreaths. Other churches encourage family worship by distributing booklets of Advent meditations, which can be used at home in conjunction with the wreath.
When used for congregational worship, the Advent wreath should be large enough to be visible to everyone. Most churches either display it on a raised platform or draped table or suspend it from the ceiling. The ceremony of lighting the candles gives the pastor or the worship leader a chance to explain the significance of the wreath, the greenery, the candles. Some congregations ask a church family to be in charge of the Advent wreath each week. Family members explain the significance of the candle they are about to light, read Scripture, recite a poem, and either sing an appropriate song or select one for the congregation to sing.
With careful planning the use of the Advent wreath in the home and church can be a worthy alternative to the commercialism that is already in full swing by the time the Advent season begins. It can help Christians forget about the countdown of shopping days until Christmas and focus instead on "the hopes and fears of all the years."
Making an Advent Wreath
- Begin by making a circular base. Appropriate materials include the following: a styrofoam ring, a wooden or cardboard ring or circle, a florist’s wire wreath, a straw or grapevine wreath.
- Make four candle holes in the base. Holes should be slightly smaller than the candles for a snug fit. Another option is to glue candle mounts or rings to the base.
- Appropriate greens include any of the following: evergreens, ivy, holly, or boxwood. Cut the greens into 6"—8" lengths and attach to the base in small bunches with thin wire or tape. The greens should be laid all in one direction with each bunch hiding the wire or tape used to attach the previous bunch.
- Greenery dries out quickly. Either plan to replace it when it dries or spray it now with fire retardant.
- Do not trim the Advent wreath with ribbons or any other decorations; this will detract from its symbolism.
Coskey, Evelyn. Christmas Crafts for Everyone. Nashville: Abingdon, 1976.
Griggs, Patricia, and Donald Griggs. Teaching and Celebrating Advent. Rev. ed. Nashville: Abingdon, 1974.
Porter, H. Boone. Keeping the Church Year. New York: Sea–bury, 1977.
Vander Haar, Trudy. Advent: A Congregational Lifellnter–generational Experience. New York: United Church, 1977.
VanWoerkom, Dorothy. When All the World Was Waiting: An Advent Book for Children. St. Louis: Concordia, 1979.