ADVENT WREATH MEANING
The Advent wreath is made from evergreen leaves which stand for eternity, God’s eternal love for us (which is ever green, ever new), shown in the promise and birth of the Messiah, his Son. Holly is traditionally used as part of the wreath, with the sharp points of the leaves reminding us of the crown of thorns (the German name for holly is Christdorn meaning ‘Christ-thorn’). The circular shape of the wreath (a crown of thorns) also stands for eternity (the ring goes round without beginning or end). Red berries stand for the drops of blood which Jesus shed for us (in the Christian tradition, the joy of Christ’s birth is always tempered by the knowledge that this child will end his life on the cross). Sometimes a red ribbon is tied through the wreath – this too stands for Christ’s blood, the cost of our redemption.
The four candles represent the four weeks of Advent, the season of preparation for Christmas.
Purple is the liturgical colour of Advent and rose (or pink) is a special colour that may be used on the 3rd Sunday of Advent (known as Gaudete Sunday meaning ‘rejoice’ from the Latin antiphon at the beginning of Mass: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice!’ (cf. Philippians 4:4-5)).
In some traditions, the first candle represents prophecy (the prophecy of the birth of a Messiah in Isaiah) or hope, the second love, the third joy, and the fourth peace (sometimes known as the angels’ candle after the angels which appeared singing ‘Glory to God in the highest and peace to men of goodwill’). Sometimes a fifth white candle is added in the centre of the wreath. This is lit on Christmas Eve to mark the coming of Christ the Light.
Protestant versions of the Advent wreath tend to use red candles. Catholic versions use the liturgical colours of purple, pink and white. Traditionally, Advent wreaths are constructed of a circle of evergreen branches into which four candles are inserted, representing the four weeks of Advent. Ideally, three candles are purple and one is rose, but white candles can also be used. The purple candles in particular symbolize the prayer, penance, and preparatory sacrifices and goods works undertaken at this time. The rose candle is lit on the third Sunday, Gaudete Sunday, when the priest also wears rose vestments at Mass; Gaudete Sunday is the Sunday of rejoicing, because the faithful have arrived at the midpoint of Advent, when their preparation is now half over and they are close to Christmas. The progressive lighting of the candles symbolizes the expectation and hope surrounding our Lord’s first coming into the world and the anticipation of his second coming to judge the living and the dead.
The actual origins are uncertain. There is evidence of pre-Christian Germanic peoples using wreaths with lit candles during the cold and dark December days as a sign of hope in the future warm and extended-sunlight days of spring. In Scandinavia during winter, lit candles were placed around a wheel, and prayers were offered to the god of light to turn “the wheel of the earth” back toward the sun to lengthen the days and restore warmth. By the Middle Ages, Christians had adapted this tradition and used Advent wreaths as part of their spiritual preparation for Christmas. After all, Christ is “the Light that came into the world” to dispel the darkness of sin and to radiate the truth and love of God (cf. Jn 3:19- 21).
The symbolism of the Advent wreath is beautiful. The wreath is made of various evergreens, signifying continuous, everlasting life. Even these evergreens have a traditional meaning, which can be adapted to our faith. The laurel signifies victory over persecution and suffering; pine, holly, and yew: immortality; and cedar: strength and healing. Holly also has a special Christian symbolism: The prickly leaves remind us of the crown of thorns and the red berries, the blood of Our Savior. One English legend suggests the cross was made of holly. 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 offered by 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, the eternal word of the Father, who entered our world becoming true man and who was victorious over sin and death through His own passion, death, and Resurrection.
The four candles represent the four weeks of Advent. While the number of weeks and days of Advent preparation varied in the early centuries of the church, St. Gregory VII (d. 1095) set the number of Sundays in Advent to four, with the first Sunday marking the beginning of the liturgical year. Three candles are purple, and one is rose. The purple candles symbolize the prayer, penance and preparatory sacrifices and good works undertaken at this time. The rose candle is lit on the third Sunday, Gaudete Sunday, when the priest also wears rose vestments at Mass. Gaudete Sunday is the Sunday of rejoicing, because the faithful have arrived at the midpoint of Advent, when their preparation is now half over and they are close to Christmas. The progressive lighting of the candles symbolizes the expectation and hope surrounding Our Lord’s first coming into the world and the anticipation of His second coming to judge the living and the dead.
The light again signifies Christ, the Light of the world. Some modern day adaptions include a white candle placed in the middle of the wreath, which represents Christ and is lit on Christmas Eve. Another tradition is to replace the colored candles with four white candles, which will be lit throughout Christmas season.
Since Advent is a time to stir up and rekindle our faith in the Lord, the wreath and its prayers provide us a way to augment this special preparation for Christmas. Moreover, this good tradition helps us to remain vigilant in our homes and not lose sight of the true meaning of Christmas.
The candles also have their own special significance. The four candles represent the four weeks of Advent, and one candle is lit each Sunday. Three of the candles are purple because the color violet is a liturgical color that signifies a time of prayer, penance, and sacrifice.
The first candle, which is purple, symbolizes hope. It is sometimes called the “Prophecy Candle” in remembrance of the prophets, especially Isaiah, who foretold the birth of Christ. It represents the expectation felt in anticipation of the coming Messiah.
The second candle, also purple, represents faith. It is called the “Bethlehem Candle” as a reminder of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem.
The third candle is pink and symbolizes joy. It is called the “Shepard’s Candle,” and is pink because rose is a liturgical color for joy. The third Sunday of Advent is Gaudete Sunday and is meant to remind us of the joy that the world experienced at the birth of Jesus, as well as the joy that the faithful have reached the midpoint of Advent.
On the fourth week of Advent, we light the final purple candle to mark the final week of prayer and penance as we wait for the birth of our Savior. This final candle, the “Angel’s Candle,” symbolizes peace. It reminds us of the message of the angels: “Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men.”
DARKNESS AND LIGHT
Advent candles readily demonstrate the strong contrast between darkness and light, which is an important biblical image. Jesus referred to himself as the “Light of the World” that dispels the darkness of sin: “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).
Human history spanned long ages shrouded in the darkness of sin before our prophesied Savior would finally make his appearance to free us from its dominion. As the Messiah’s “Advent” (or “coming”) draws nearer another candle is lit, with each candle dispelling the darkness a little more. Thus, the Advent wreath helps us to spiritually contemplate the great drama of salvation history that surrounds the birth of God Incarnate, who comes to redeem the human race and make all things new (Rev. 21:5). It also reminds us that, as Christians, we’re meant to shine the light of Christ in this world. As Jesus tells us, You are the light of the world … let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)
SHAPE, NUMBER, AND COLOR
SHAPE: The circular shape of the wreath, without beginning or end, symbolizes God’s complete and unending love for us—a love that sent his Son into the world to redeem us from the curse of sin. It also represents eternal life which becomes ours through faith in Jesus Christ.
NUMBER: The Advent Wreath traditionally holds four candles which are lit, one at a time, on each of the four Sundays of the Advent season. Each candle represents 1,000 years. Added together, the four candles symbolize the 4,000 years that humanity waited for the world’s Savior—from Adam and Eve to Jesus, whose birth was foretold in the Old Testament. Some Advent wreath traditions also include a fifth white “Christ” candle, symbolizing purity, that is lit on Christmas Eve or Christmas day. Many circular wreaths can incorporate a white candle by adding a pillar candle to the wreath center.
COLOR: Violet is a liturgical color that is used to signify a time of prayer, penance, and sacrifice and is used during Advent and Lent. Advent, also called “little Lent,” is the season where we spiritually wait in our “darkness” with hopeful expectation for our promised redemption, just as the whole world did before Christ’s birth, and just as the whole world does now as we eagerly await his promised return.
THE FOUR WEEKS OF ADVENT
During the first two weeks of Advent we light the first two purple candles. The Third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete (Rejoice) Sunday. On this day we celebrate that our waiting for the birth of Jesus on Christmas day is almost over. Rose is a liturgical color that is used to signify joy, so we light the single pink candle on the third Sunday of Advent. Then on the fourth Sunday of Advent, the final purple candle is lit to mark the final week of prayer and penance as we wait expectantly for the soon-coming birth of the King of Kings.
The 1st Sunday of Advent symbolizes Hope with the “Prophet’s Candle” reminding us that Jesus is coming.
The 2nd Sunday of Advent symbolizes Faith and Love with the “Bethlehem Candle” reminding us of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem.
The 3rd Sunday of Advent symbolizes Joy with the “Shepherd’s Candle” reminding us of the Joy the world experienced at the coming birth of Jesus.
The 4th Sunday of Advent symbolizes Peace with the “Angel’s Candle” reminding us of the message of the angels: “Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men.”
The white candle is placed in the middle of the wreath and lit on Christmas Eve. This candle is called the “Christ Candle” and represents the life of Christ. The color white is for purity—because Christ is our sinless, pure Savior.
Celebrating Advent is an excellent way to prepare your mind and heart for Christmas.