Advent is a time of expectation and hope. “Advent” means “arrival” or “coming,” and it prompts us to pause each day in December and remember why Jesus came at Christmas. Traditions vary by country, but common ways of commemorating Jesus’ birth are through Advent calendars, wreaths, and candles. Ideally, any Advent tradition should involve families in a fun activity each day of December, helping them remember why we celebrate Christmas.
The History of Advent
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. One of the first mentions of an Advent calendar appeared in 1851 in a children’s book by Elise Averdieck. In the story, a little girl named Elisabeth listens to part of the Christmas story each day in December. She sings Christmas carols and puts a picture on her wallpaper. Once she has twenty-four pictures on the wall, she knows Christmas has finally arrived.
What Is the Advent Wreath?
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. The circle reminds us of God’s unending love and the eternal life He makes possible. Advent candles are often nestled in the evergreen wreath. Additional decorations, like holly and berries, are sometimes added. Their red colour points ahead to Jesus’ sacrifice and death. Pinecones can symbolize the new life that Jesus brings through His resurrection. Families begin lighting a candle on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, and they light another candle each subsequent Sunday.
Advent Candles and Their Meaning
Advent candles shine brightly in the midst of darkness, reminding us that Jesus came as Light into our dark world. The candles are often set in a circular Advent wreath. 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 meltdown to the next day’s mark.
The most common Advent candle tradition, however, involves four candles. A new candle is lit on each of the four Sundays before Christmas. Each candle represents something different, although traditions vary. Often, the first, second, and fourth candles are purple; the third candle is rose-coloured. Sometimes all the candles are red; in other traditions, all four candles are blue or white. Occasionally, a fifth white candle is placed in the middle and is lit on Christmas Day to celebrate Jesus’ birth.
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 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 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 colour rose signifies joy.
The fourth candle represents peace and is called the “Angel’s Candle.” The angels announced that Jesus came to bring peace–He came to bring people close to God and to each other again.
The (optional) fifth candle represents light and purity and is called “Christ’s candle.” It is placed in the middle and is lit on Christmas Day.
Adapted from an article by Laura Richie posted by Linda Stevens