Where did the Advent wreath originate and what are the colors and meanings of the candles?
“A custom that has developed during the Advent season that reflects the joy of anticipation characteristic of the season is the Advent wreath. It is generally thought that a wheel or wreath of evergreens was a symbol in northern Europe long before the arrival of Christianity. The circle symbolized the eternal cycle of the seasons while the evergreens signified the persistence of life in the midst of winter. Some sources suggest the wreath—reinterpreted as a Christian symbol—was used in the Middle Ages, others that it was established in Germany as a Christian custom only in the sixteenth century, and others that the Advent wreath was not invented until the nineteenth century. This last theory credits Johann Hinrich Wichern (1808–1881), a Lutheran pastor in Germany and a pioneer in urban mission work among the poor, as the originator of the modern Advent wreath. During Advent, children at the mission school Wichern founded in Hamburg for juvenile delinquents (known as “The Rough House”) would ask daily if Christmas had arrived. In 1839, he set up a large wooden cartwheel with nineteen small red and four 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 Lutheran churches in Germany and evolved into the smaller wreath with four candles known today. Roman Catholics in Germany began to adopt the custom in the 1920s, and in the 1930s it spread to North America. In Roman Catholic churches purple candles were used, except for pink on the third Sunday (Gaudate—“Rejoice,” from the Introit, “Rejoice in the Lord always”), reflecting the liturgical colors. In Lutheran use white candles were used on all four Sundays. More recently, blue has become a liturgical color of Advent in Lutheran churches, and there have also been blue candles, or white candles with blue rings. Some Protestants, who think that red is a liturgical color for Christmas, use red candles.
“Originally a custom used in homes and schools, the Advent wreath has been brought into the churches and lighted during public worship. There is no prescribed liturgical use of the Advent wreath and there is no authoritative set of meanings for the candles. The Advent wreath is more properly the center for home devotions. Extensive devotions around the Advent wreath within the liturgy would not be appropriate.”
— from Frank C. Senn, Introduction to Christian Liturgy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), pp. 111-12. This and more than fifty other questions are answered in this book that has been called a “liturgical catechism.” Available from Fortress Press and Amazon.com. Four chapters answer questions about the church year and its liturgical observances.
Pastor Frank Senn