The history and symbolism of the Advent wreath draws on Catholic tradition and teaching. Advent marks the beginning of the Catholic liturgical year. The Advent wreath is an anticipated and welcomed addition to Catholic churches and homes, appearing after Thanksgiving and signaling the count-down until Christmas.
The Meaning of Advent
Advent comes from a Latin word meaning “a coming, approach, arrival.” Advent, which begins the new liturgical year, is a time of joy-filled anticipation. As Catholics, Advent reminds us that we are a people in darkness, awaiting the light of our Lord and Savior.
Origins of the Advent Wreath
The history of the Advent wreath draws on the fundamental truths of the Catholic Church. There are no clear sources documenting the exact beginning of the Advent wreath tradition. Some scholars suggest the custom emanated from Scandinavia. Others from Europe during the Middle Ages.
Historians agree that early Christian missionaries who were spreading the Gospel around the world often adapted familiar customs and traditions form the communities being evangelized. One tradition was the use of candles to welcome the coming of spring. According to EWTN, “the first missionaries took advantage of this tradition to evangelize to people and taught them that they should use the Advent wreath as a way of preparing for Christ’s birth and to celebrate his nativity and beg Jesus to infuse his light into their souls.”
The modern iteration of the Advent wreath is often attributed to 19th century Protestant pastor Johann Hinrich Wichern. Legend holds that in 1839, he crafted a wooden wheel with small red and white candles to help children count down the days until Christmas.
Shape of the Advent Wreath
The circular shape of the Advent wreath is an important symbol. It represents the reality that God’s love has no beginning or ending. It is eternal. This is an especially important consideration for Advent when we are awaiting the birth of our Savior.
The Colors of the Advent Wreath
The Advent wreath typically consists of evergreen branches with purple and pink candles. The choice of colors for the wreath and its candles holds significant meaning.
The evergreen branches used in the Advent wreath not only symbolize God’s undying love, but they represent life and growth, even in the midst of winter. The green color signifies hope and the everlasting life found in Christ.
The Advent wreath features four colored candles; three purple and one pink.
The first, second, and fourth weeks of Advent are represented by purple candles which symbolize penance, repentance and the anticipated coming of Christ the King.
Gaudete Sunday, or the third Sunday in Advent, is symbolized by a pink (or rose colored) candle. Gaudete means “rejoice” in Latin. On Gaudete Sunday, we celebrate the joyful anticipation of Christ’s birth. In the midst of repentance, we are joyfully waiting for salvation.
Some Advent wreaths include a fifth, white candle. This is lit on Christmas Day and represents the birth of Jesus Christ.
Advent is a season steeped with symbolism. The Advent wreath and the Advent calendar are welcomed traditions that keep Catholics focused on the coming birth of the Christ Child. The Advent wreath is an especially welcomed symbol adorning our churches and homes. The appearance of the Advent wreath after Thanksgiving begins a period of repentance and joyful anticipation for the coming birth of Jesus Christ. Each Sunday, the unique colors of the Advent candles take us deeper into the mystery of Christ’s birth and brings us closer to the joy of salvation.
The Catholic Advent Wreath Blessing
Lord our God,
we praise you for your Son, Jesus Christ:
He is Emmanuel, the hope of the peoples,
He is the wisdom that teaches and guides us,
He is the Savior of every nation.
let your blessing come upon us
as we light the candles of this wreath.
May the wreath and its light
be a sign of Christ’s promise to bring us salvation.
May He come quickly and not delay.