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Advent wreaths are a tradition used by Christians to mark the passage of the 4 weeks of Advent. Its usual form is of a horizontal evergreen wreath holding four candles. Starting during the first week of Advent, a candle is lit while prayers are said. An additional candle is lit during each of the following weeks until all four candles are lit during the last week before Christmas. Advent wreaths are used in both private, family services and at church services.
The earliest Advent wreaths were made in the Middle Ages; however, the first modern Advent wreath was made by Johann Hinrich Wichern (1808-1881). Wichern was a German theologian and educator who founded a home for poor children in the city of Hamburg. During the Advent season, the children would ask daily if Christmas had arrived. In 1839, he built a wooden ring (made out of an old cartwheel) with 198 small red and 56 big white candles. A small candle was lit successively every day of Advent. On Sundays and Saturdays, a large white candle was lit. This eventually led to the modern Advent wreath with its four candles.
About 1860, people started to entwine the wooden ring with evergreen cuttings. The Advent wreath became a German Christmas tradition at the beginning of the 20th century. In Austria and southern Germany (particularly Bavaria) it did not become a custom until after 1930.
It has now spread to other countries. Eventually, the Advent wreath made its way into various Protestant churches and later into Roman Catholic churches in the United States. In Orthodox Christian countries, Advent wreaths with 6 candles are sometimes used due to the longer Advent season.
There are several interpretations of the symbolism of the Advent wreath. The underlying symbolism is the accumulation of light as an expression of the growing anticipation of the birth of Jesus Christ, who is seen as the light of the world in Christian faith.
The circular wreath is meant to represent God's eternity as it has no beginning or end. The evergreens are also a symbol of everlasting life.
Advent wreath in the Catholic liturgy
In the Catholic tradition, three of the candles are violet-coloured, and one is rose-coloured. The violet candles symbolize faithful expectation, and the rose candle symbolizes joy and hope. These colours mirror the colours of the priest’s vestments used during the Sundays of Advent. In earlier times, the season of Advent had stronger penitential and ascetic aspects, and a relaxation of disciplines was offered on the third Sunday of Advent, called Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin for "rejoice", the first words of the Introit. This turn is reflected in the shift from violet to rose. One violet candle is lit on the first evening of Advent (a Sunday). On successive Sundays, the second violet candle is added, then the rose candle on Gaudete Sunday, and finally, the third violet candle.
Modifications and different interpretations had been added - especially for the colours of the candles.
Some Anglicans, Methodists, and Lutherans use blue candles rather than violet, while some use only white candles. Purple is a color of penitence and of royalty. Some churches will use blue, a color of hope, in place of purple to reserve the use of purple for Lent. Some wreaths have a larger, central fifth candle (generally white), which is lit on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day to signify Christ's birth.
In some traditions the first candle is often called the prophet's candle, and is meant to signify the hope of Jesus' arrival. The second is generally called the Bethlehem candle, reminding Christians that God appeared to them in a humble manner; Bethlehem was located in the territory of one of the least powerful tribes of Israel. The third candle is the shepherds' candle, representing the joy that more than half of Advent is over. The final candle is the angels' candle, symbolising their peace and the message of good news that they offer.
In the traditions that use five candles, the first candle is called the Candle of Hope and represents the Patriarchs of the faith. The second candle, the Candle of Peace, represents the prophets who foretold of Jesus' birth. The third candle is the Candle of Love and represents John the Baptist who came to prepare the way for Christ. The fourth candle is called the Candle of Joy and represents Mary, the mother of Jesus. The fifth and final candle, which is usually white, represents Jesus Christ and is lit on Christmas Day.