The Christmas season is a time of numerous advent traditions and celebrations. We look forward to listening to and singing certain songs; we deck our halls with ornaments and trinkets passed down throughout the years. Some aspects of our holiday festivities have become second nature and we may not remember how or why they got their start in the first place.
One such tradition is the lighting of the advent candles of the Advent wreath.
I will discuss this practice, its history, and its purpose, and look closely at the most commonly attributed Advent candle meanings. Hopefully this post will enrich your Christmas season.
Advent is a time of expectation and hope filled with rich traditions is the name given to the season of 24 days leading up to Christmas. The word "Advent" is derived from the Latin word adventus, meaning "arrival" or "coming", which is a translation of the Greek word parousia. Advent began as early as the 4th and 5th centuries as a time of fasting and prayer for new Christians. The first mention of Advent occurred in the 300’s A.D. at a meeting of church leaders called the Council of Sargossa. It gradually developed into a season that stretched across the month of December. Advent lasts for four Sundays leading up to Christmas. The Advent season not only symbolizes the waiting for Christ's birth but also for his final return. Traditions vary by country, but common ways of commemorating Jesus’ birth are through Advent calendars, wreaths, and candles. The advent wreath and candles provide beautiful symbolism for each week of advent as we wait for Christmas to arrive.
The Advent wreath first appeared in Germany in 1839. A Lutheran minister working at a mission for children created a wreath out of the wheel of a cart. He placed twenty small red candles and four large white candles inside the ring. The red candles were lit on weekdays and the four white candles were lit on Sundays. Eventually, the Advent wreath was created out of evergreens, symbolizing everlasting life in the midst of winter and death as the evergreen is continuously green. Additional decorations, like holly and berries, are sometimes added.
In Scandinavia, Lutheran churches light a candle each day of December; by Christmas, they have twenty-four candles burning. Another Advent candle option is a single candle with twenty-four marks on the side. The candle is lit each day and allowed to melt down to the next day’s mark.
Different denominations and faith traditions have their own customary advent candle colors and meanings for the advent candles. In Lutheran traditions, blues are used; other protestant denominations use red. The most ubiquitous color scheme features three purple advent candles and one pink candle. Additionally, the Advent wreath often features a fifth white advent candle placed in the center, to be lit on Christmas Eve itself.
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 purple color symbolizes royalty, repentance, and fasting.
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 second candle is also purple to symbolism preparation for the coming king.
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. In liturgy, the color rose signifies joy. This candle is colored pink to represent joyfulness and rejoicing.
The fourth candle represents peace and is called the "Angel’s Candle." This candle picks up where the Shepherd’s candle often leaves off, with the angel’s declaration of the Good News of love. The angels announced that Jesus came to bring peace. e came to bring people close to God and to each other again. This color is also purple to represent the culmination of love through the Messiah.
The fifth candle represents light and purity and is called "Christ’s candle." It is placed in the middle and is lit on Christmas Day. This candle is white to represent pure light and victory.
While not all Advent candle wreaths include this additional candle, the center white candle is lit on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, celebrating the arrival of that which we have been anticipating. Jesus is born and our season of waiting is at an end. With the lighting of the Christ candle, we remember the Light which shines in the darkness—the source of our hope, champion for peace, reason for our joy, and giver of love.
Taking part in the season of Advent enables one to walk through the Christmas season with fresh eyes. The tradition of Advent wreaths helps us to visualize this journey to the manger more clearly and invites us to await Jesus with hope anticipation.
As for Advent calendars, the first printed one was created in 1908 by a German named Gerhard Lang. As a boy, his mother would sew twenty-four cookies onto the lid of a box. Each day of December, he ate a cookie. This tradition inspired him to create a calendar entitled, "In the Land of the Christ Child." Today, Advent calendars are a popular tool for families to count down the days until Christmas and are typically more common in households than Advent wreaths.