What is an Advent Wreath?

I came from a non-liturgical Christian tradition, so when I began to pastor in a church that incorporate some Christian Year practices, I had a lot to learn! My first Advent taught me that various Christian traditions differ on the exact meaning of the four Advent Sundays and candles. After making the mistake of accidentally following a different progression than my church followed, I began researching the meaning of the four Sundays of Advent attributed to the candles.

Variety is the Spice of Life! Well, that may be true, unless you’re the pastor leading a church through Advent using the wrong Advent tradition! I discovered a variety of meanings among Christian traditions. At the time, I was a United Church of Christ pastor, and we followed the pattern of: Hope, Peace, Love, and Joy (Book of Worship). I found that many other Christian traditions switched the third and fourth Sundays, which follows the Revised Common Lectionary. In my defense, Stookey points out, “Most Protestants have no idea on which Sunday to light the ‘pink’ candle for the first time, let alone why” (128).

Admittedly, I should have found out what progression my church followed! Other Christian traditions use completely different progressions: Patriarchs, Prophets, John the Baptist, and the Virgin Mary, or Prophecy, Bethlehem, Shepherd, and Magi. Still others use: Expectation, Preparation, Joy, and Incarnation (Bratcher). Stookey points out several more and explains, “Because the wreath arose as a household custom…the forms of its use are so various as to be perplexing” (128; 127). AGREED!

What is meaning of Advent? So, there are various ways to observe the Sundays of Advent, but Advent does possess a specific meaning. As discussed in my previous article on Advent, the word “Advent” comes from the Latin and means “coming” or “arrival” (Klein 41). Who is coming or arriving? The short answer is simply Jesus Christ. Advent celebrates both the historical first coming of Jesus Christ in the incarnation as a babe in the manger, the Suffering Servant, as well as celebrates his future Second Coming as the King of kings and Lord of lords. The Advent Wreath is one way that we observe the theme for the four Sundays of Advent.

How did the Advent Wreath develop? OR, A very Brief History of the Advent Wreath: Admittedly, there is some debate over the origin and history of the Advent Wreath (Wikipedia). It appears that the Advent Wreath had its’ origins in sixteenth century Europe and was used throughout Germany to celebrate Christians hope in Jesus Christ for salvation and restoration. By the nineteenth century, it was widely practiced as a family custom in most of Northern Europe (Stookey 127). Provance adds, “Its popularity is recent (twentieth century)” (14). It seems that the Advent Wreath has experienced a growing popularity throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century’s, and in recent years, the Advent Wreath has experience a renewed interest here in the United States. Many churches now celebrate the season of Advent using it.

What is an Advent Wreath? Concerning the Advent Wreath, Provance describes it simply as, “A wreath bearing four candles, each lit progressively on successive Sunday (or their eves) of the Advent season” (14). Often, a taller white candle, called the Christ Candle, will be placed in the center of the Advent Wreath and is lit on Christmas Eve (Klein 41). While this is the most familiar arrangement to me, other arrangements are used in homes and churches, even using an Advent Log instead of an Advent Wreath (Stookey 127)!

Why do we celebrate with the Advent Wreath? The symbolism of the Advent Wreath and candles provides a meaningful, visible way of accentuating the season. While I think that some take the symbolism much further than the original intent, the wreath itself may be conceived of having two meanings (Bratcher). The circle representing God’s eternality, without beginning or end, and the evergreen of the wreath, for those who use it, symbolizing the hope and life that we have in Jesus Christ. It reminds us of newness, of renewal, and of eternal life.

The candles contribute to the symbolism of the Advent Wreath as well. While this may be a stretch as well, the four outer candles may remind us of the four hundred silent years between the Old and New Testaments (Bratcher). They represent our Advent spirituality focused on expectant waiting during the four Sundays of Advent and visibly enhance our hope of the coming Messiah. As the candles are lit, they remind us of Christ coming as the Light of the World (Klein 41). Stookey comments, “The primary reason for lighting one candle the First Sunday, that candle plus another on the Second Sunday, and so on, is to signal progression (128). He continues, “The accumulation of light reminds us of the ever closer approach of the Light of the World, both at Bethlehem and in glory at the end of the age” (128). The Light first that shone dimly in a manger in Bethlehem will shine fully in all of His glory when he comes again. Our anticipation grows with the increasing light of each Advent Sunday.

While historically, the colors of the candles have not been uniform (Stookey 127), the colors of the candles may also have symbolic significance (Bratcher). The three purple candles represent His royalty and suffering. They point us to the suffering of Jesus Christ upon the cross of Calvary to pay the penalty for our sins. Jesus Christ is the King who will rule and reign fully at the time of the Father’s choosing. The pink candle stands for the joy surrounding his impending birth as well as the joy that fills our hearts because our sins have been forgiven. Finally, many Advent Wreaths contain a large white candle in the middle that is called the Christ Candle. This candle is lit on Christmas Eve and represents the birth of Jesus Christ in the manger.

While there are many variations of the Advent Wreath celebration, it does seem that there is developing a standardization of many aspects of it. Ultimately, the Christian Year centers on the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. The Advent Wreath is meant to help us celebrate Jesus’ coming birth as well as accents our anticipation of His Second Coming. The use of an Advent Wreath is one means of experiencing the growing expectation of Christ’s coming at Christmas.


Advent wreath. (2011, September 13). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 13:44, October 26, 2011.

Book of Worship: United Church of Christ (New York: United Church of Christ Office for Church Life and Leadership, 1986).

Bratcher, Dennis. The Season of Advent: Anticipation and Hope. Retrieved on November 1, 2011.

Klein, Patricia S. Worship Without Words: the Signs and Symbols of Our Faith (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2000).

Provance, Brett Scott. The Pocket Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009).

Stookey, Laurence. Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996).

People also view

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *