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Faith & Wisdom

The Christian History of the Advent Wreath

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The lead-up to Christmas is a busy time for many families. You need to put up a Christmas tree, organize presents, arrange party plans with loved ones, and decorate your home. 

As many of our Christmas decorations carry fond memories, many people greatly treasure them. But have you ever wondered where your favorite decorations came from? While plastic Santas and fairy lights have relatively modern roots, other decorations like Advent wreaths have a long history.

In this article, we'll introduce you to that history. You'll learn what Advent wreaths symbolize, why we use them, and why they have a special meaning for Christians.

What is an Advent wreath?

An Advent wreath is a circular arrangement of greenery and candles that Christians use to celebrate the days and weeks that lead up to Christmas

While we tend to picture Advent wreaths as classical holly and pine wreaths, Advent wreaths change slightly between countries and cultures. Depending on where you live and the type of plants native to your area, you might include leaves, branches, nuts, flowers, or decorations in your Advent wreath. 

You may also include holly, berries, pinecones, or seeds for symbolism (we'll explain what these symbolize in the "What do the candles of Advent symbolize" section).

The candle arrangement on Advent wreaths differs between Christians. Typically, Advent calendars include 1–24 candles, but the most common four combinations include:

  • One candle that you light every day in December
  • Four candles that you light one-by-one on each of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas
  • Four candles that you light one-by-one on each of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas, and one candle that you light on Christmas day 
  • 24 candles that you light one-by-one every day of Advent

History of Advent wreaths

Though Advent wreaths are a widely recognized Christian symbol today, you won't find any in your Bible. So, where was the Advent wreath invented?

According to Professor Haemig of Luther Seminary, St Paul, Johann Hinrich Wichern created the first Advent wreath in 1839. 

Wichern was a protestant pastor in Germany who created the Advent wreath for his students at the Rauhes Haus school. He created it to help the children remember how many days were left until Christmas day.

Wichern's Advent wreath looked a little different from the ones we use today. His wreath came from an old cartwheel and included 24 candles (20 red candles and four white candles). Throughout the Advent period, Wichern lit one candle a day (a red one on every weekday and a white one every Sunday).

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When does Advent start, and why do we celebrate it?

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The Advent season marks the lead-up to Jesus' birth. It starts four Sundays from Christmas and continues until Christmas day.

Naturally, the dates included in the Advent period change slightly every year. In 2021, Advent starts on Sunday, November 28, and finishes on Friday, December 24. Advent starts on Sunday, November 27, in 2022.

The Advent period is a joyous (but busy) time for many Christians. We celebrate it to:

  • Mark the coming of Jesus Christ
  • Thank God for the cycle of renewal and new life that Jesus brought to the Earth
  • Celebrate the coming of the second coming of Jesus Christ (i.e., Judgment Day)
  • Celebrate Mary, Joseph, and everyone who helped bring Jesus into the world safely

While the Advent period isn't mentioned in the Bible, it dates back a long time. Some historical accounts place the first celebrations of Advent in the 4th or 5th century.

What do the candles of Advent symbolize?

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Advent wreaths aren't just decorations: they hold multiple symbolic meanings that are special to many Christians. 

We'll explain many of them in this section, but let's start with the candles. 

Most types of Advent wreaths include four to five candles. The first four candles celebrate the four Sundays of the Advent period, and the fifth candle celebrates Jesus' birth on Christmas day. 

Specifically, these candles include:

  • The Prophecy Candle. This first candle reminds us of the prophets and symbolizes hope. Typically, this candle is blue (as it's a liturgical color), and people light it on the first Sunday of Advent. 
  • The Bethlehem Candle. This second candle is a reminder of Joseph and Mary's trip to Bethlehem, and it symbolizes faith. This candle is also blue, and people light it on the second Sunday of Advent.
  • The Shepherds Candle. This third candle reminds us of the happiness Jesus' birth brought to the Earth, and it symbolizes joy. This candle is usually pink, and people light it on Gaudete Sunday (the third Sunday of Advent). 
  • The Angel's Candle. This fourth candle is a reminder of God's angels, and it symbolizes peace. It's typically purple, and people light it on the fourth Sunday of Advent.
  • The Christ Candle. This final candle represents Jesus' life. It's typically white. People light it on Christmas day.

Interestingly, some Christians also believe that the first four Advent candles also represent the Earth's age before Jesus' arrival. Specifically, they believe that each candle marks 1,000 years between Adam and Eve and Jesus' birth.  

Of course, candles aren't the only symbolic thing about Advent wreaths, as:

  • The circle of the Advent wreath symbolizes the cycle of renewal on Earth, the eternity of God, and Christ's eternal life (we also see this symbolism in wedding bands)
  • Holy symbolizes the crown of thorns placed on Jesus' head before his crucifixion
  • Berries symbolize Jesus' blood
  • Nuts, pine cones, and seeds symbolize new life and promise 

Traditional Advent prayers to light your candles with

Although every Church, family, and individual lights their Advent candles slightly differently, many Christians prefer to say a prayer as they light their candles. 

Here are four short prayers for the weeks of Advent.

First week

Lord, as we light the Prophecy candle today, we welcome the start of Advent for another year. 

Please help us welcome Christ's coming and remind us to do good in his name this festive season. He is the light of the world. Amen.

Second week

Dear Lord, you are the God of power and the creator of life. Please open our hearts and minds and allow us to receive your son Jesus Christ. We light the Bethlehem candle in his name. Glory to God, and bless this holy family. Amen.

Third week

Dear God, please allow us to thank all those that brought Jesus to this Earth. We light the Shepherds Candle for them and to celebrate your Divine power. Amen.

Fourth week

Our Father, today, we light the Angel's Candle for you and the Messiah Jesus. We're just days away from celebrating Christmas Eve, the birth of our Savior, and the renewal of our world. Please help us celebrate him and welcome his second coming whenever it may happen. Amen.

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Celebrate the coming of Jesus this Christmas season

The Christmas period gets very busy for many families — but that's why Advent wreaths are so extraordinary. 

Lighting your Advent wreath with your loved ones gives you time to gather, thank Jesus, and prepare spiritually for Christmas.

If you'd like to learn more about Christmas, listen to our podcast episode "The Best Way to Get Ready For Christmas." Or, to listen to other content, download our app from the iOS app store or the Google Play store.

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