Holy Innocents' Episcopal Church

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Clergy Corner

A Brief History of the Advent Wreath

  • The Rev. Grady "Buddy" Crawford
  • Nov 20, 2019
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Why the Advent wreath? Purple, blue, rose, or white candles?

During the long dark days of winter centuries ago, pagan cultures brought evergreen boughs into their homes, preserving a remnant of green as the ground became barren. Eventually, candles were added to the evergreens in increasing numbers in anticipation of the return of the sun in its springtime fullness.

Christians in Germany appropriated the use of evergreen wreaths in the home for domestic devotions. Our Advent practices today are tied to the 17th century Germanic practice of using four white candles, indicating the four weeks of Advent leading up to Christmas. Each week families gathered for prayer and fellowship and lit successive candles to mark the passage of time. Advent wreathes were rarely used in liturgical settings, and it only became common to see them in church in the middle of the 20th century.

In the 1950’s the season of Advent had a more penitential tone as the faithful prepared to celebrate the Nativity and purple candles were used to identify this motif. However, on the third Sunday of Advent a rose colored candle was lit, and the fasts lightened. This third Sunday was called Gaudete Sunday (the Latin word for “Rejoice” - the first word of the introit on that day).

With the 1979 Book of Common Prayer the season of Advent shifted from being penitential to a time of waiting and anticipation – of longing – for the birth of Jesus, and blue candles replaced the purple and rose - blue being the color associated with the Virgin Mary. A white candle, called the Christ Candle, is sometimes added on Christmas day and burns during the twelve days of Christmas. Some liturgists have suggested that we return to using only white candles for the wreath. The choice is yours. The color is not nearly as important as the spiritual practices of prayer and yearning for the coming of the Christ child.