The Advent wreath, for me, is the ultimate symbol of the season. It’s the one sign of Advent that is present, no matter how busy our life it. Some years are so hectic that the candles aren’t lit often, but the wreath is there, a very visible reminder of the season.
The unbroken circle of the wreath has no beginning or end, just as God Himself has no beginning or end. Usually, there is greenery. Mine is typically plastic, which has no symbolism that I know of, other than not having enough money or patience to buy fresh greens every year.
There is meaning behind the different types of leaves you can use: laurel for victory over sin and suffering; cedar for strength and healing; pine and yew for life everlasting; and holly, with its spiky leaves foreshadowing the crown of thorns and its bright red berries reminding us of the blood Christ shed for our sins. All these can be boiled down to just knowing that evergreens represent Christ’s life, death, and resurrection and God’s eternal love for us.
We place the Advent wreath on our table; hopefully, with three purple candles and one pink. Purple is always a liturgical color of penitence. Advent doesn’t reach the same depths as Lent, as far as focus on repentance, but it is part of the journey. We usually hear about John the Baptist during Advent, who spent time preaching repentance of sins before Jesus began his ministry. And since the whole purpose of Jesus becoming one of us was to save us from our sins, it seems very appropriate that we prepare for the remembrance of the birth of Christ by some sober reflection on our lives and atone for what needs atoning. The three weeks of Advent that are purple remind us of the seriousness of the season. Yes, Christmas is coming. Yes, it is joyful and full of hope. But in the midst of life we are in death. Taking time during Advent to focus on true repentance and to reorient our lives towards Christ, our Light, is what the color purple is meant to remind us.
The one pink candle is for the third week of Advent. Known as Gaudete, or Rejoice, Sunday – the entrance antiphon for mass that day is from Philippians 4:13 – “Gaudete in Domino semper”, or “Rejoice in the Lord always – it serves as a reminder that joy is coming. Yes, we wait in hopeful silence for most of Advent. Yes, we remember our sins. But just around the corner, all creation is ready to burst into astonished song at a God born as a tiny, helpless baby in a stable, come into the world just for you and me.
Some years we burn our Advent wreath candles down to nubs, and other years one or two are barely touched. It all depends on our schedule and how often we actually sit down to dinner. One year I couldn’t find the right colors in any store – sold out, everywhere! I settled for a four deep red candles, a decent compromise. Right after I purchased those candles, I realized I could buy the purple/pink box right at our church! The red were put away. My youngest found them recently when he was cleaning out the kitchen island drawers. I forgot how pretty that shade of red is. I decided that this year we will use the red candles and enjoy them. Maybe I’ll put a pink bow around the one for Gaudete Sunday.
We have a brand new Advent wreath for this year. I am very excited. It is pretty, with symbols of the season on all sides. Formerly, we used a standard plain gold ring that I jazzed up with a pine garland (plastic, no big surprise) and small ribbons and ornaments. I realized last year it had become quite worn and dingy. It was fun to shop all the different wreath styles. I ultimately chose one with no greenery at all. Made of sturdy resin, it has symbols on all fours sides (including pictures of greenery, so it counts!). There are many styles and choices. You can even put a paper wreath on the table or window and add paper candles each week. Whatever you do, make the wreath work for you in your current stage of life. There’s an option for everyone out there!
What do you actually do with an Advent wreath? Just as there are many styles of wreaths out there, there are many traditions for using an Advent wreath. Our preferred time is dinner time when most of us are home. The family says grace, lights the candle or candles, then sings the first verse of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”. After dinner is over, the candles are blown out. When our boys were younger, they rotated who did the blowing. It was an important job! Some families say special Advent wreath prayers, others just light the candles.
The Advent wreath is a wealth of imagery and symbolism. It is a very visual, tangible reminder of the passage of time during the season of Advent. However, with so many choices in wreath styles and ways to use the wreath, each home has its own unique Advent wreath traditions. Find what works best for you, knowing it can change from year to year.