By Rev. Averill Elizabeth Blackburn
In the four Sundays leading up to Christmas, we light four candles in an Advent Wreath. Some of us do this only at church. Others of us follow this tradition at home as well. We often read devotionals or say special prayers along with the lighting of the candles. Some wreaths have a fifth candle in the center, which is lit on Christmas Eve. But what is the history of the Advent Wreath? Where did it come from?
The concept of the Advent Wreath originally came from German Lutherans in the sixteenth century. However, it was not until the 1800s that the Advent Wreath became more widespread throughout Protestant denominations.
In the town of Hamburg, at the Rauhes Haus mission school, excited children would often ask in the month of December if Christmas had arrived yet. Johann Hinrich Wichern (1808-1881), a Protestant pastor associated with the mission school, built a large wood ring made from an old cartwheel and decorated it with twenty small red and four large white candles. A small candle was lit every weekday and Saturday during the Advent season. On Sundays, however, a large white candle was lit.
This wreath of candles became popular in Germany and evolved to the smaller circle with four candles simply representing the four Sundays in Advent. In the 1920s, Catholics in Germany began to use the Advent Wreath, and the tradition spread to America in the 1930s.
The colors of the four candles have since developed intoto three candles of violet or purple with the third candle being pink. The first, second, and fourth Sundays in Advent are meant to be Sundays of penitence (as represented by purple), while the third Sunday is a Sunday of rejoicing (the color pink).
In some Protestant Churches, especially in Great Britain, it is actually common to use four red candles in Advent Wreaths, which reflect the colors used in Christmas decorations.
Still, on every Sunday in Advent, when we anticipate the birth of Jesus, Christians around the world light a candle—whether white, purple/pink, or red. We are united in hope for the future, a desire for peace on earth and good will for all. We all join together and light one candle in the Advent Wreath.