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What Is the Origin of the Advent Wreath?



Dear TIA,

Where did the Advent wreath originate?

In our church this year there is no Advent Wreath because the priest said it is pagan. Many true Catholics are upset over this. The wreath traditionally has been part of the Catholic Church for over 400 years so where would this idea come from? Please help!

     P.L.
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TIA responds:

Dear P.L.,

The Advent Wreath, as many may know, is an evergreen wreath with four candles representing the four weeks of Advent. It is generally displayed in homes and schools throughout the Advent season and traditionally displays three purple candles and one pink candle.

Advent wreath - Catholic 1

A Catholic Advent Wreath

The liturgical color for Advent is purple, and the purple candles symbolize the prayer, penance and good works undertaken during this time in preparation for Christmas. One purple candle is lit the first Sunday, another is lit on the second Sunday. The rose candle is lit on the third, Gaudete Sunday, when the priest also wears rose vestments at Mass. The fourth purple candle is lit on the fourth Sunday of Advent. The gradually increasing light symbolizes the approach of the Birth of Christ, the Light of the world.

Your question motivated a fairly extensive search through our medieval files, library sources and the Internet about the origin and history of this pious custom. We found a mélange of information that we sifted through in order to establish when the Advent Wreath became a Catholic custom.

Perhaps your priest was referring to the wreath itself as pagan, since some histories report that the evergreen wreath originated in the pagan times of Sweden, Norway and Denmark. Evergreens were gathered into round piles with candles placed upon them, which represented the yearly cycle, and so on. Such data, however, are not trustworthy since they generally come from wicca sites, which habitually pretend that every Christmas custom or symbol is pagan, baptized and adapted by Catholics.

From what we could verify, wreaths of evergreens were used in the 7th century in Catholic baptismal ceremonies. In early medieval Europe it was also used in weddings, the bride and bridegroom being crowned with wreaths to symbolize their victory over the temptations of the flesh. By the late Middle Ages, garlands and wreaths were being used as Christmas décor in much of Catholic Europe.

For Catholics the evergreen is symbolic of life because its needles are green and alive even as the world grows dark and plants die back. The circle wreath, which has no beginning or end, symbolizes the eternity of God. The wreath is a good Catholic symbol, and, in our opinion, should not be rejected because of a possible previous pagan usage.

These observations regard evergreens, wreaths and garlands. Now, what about the Advent wreath?

Wooden hoop

Protestant Advent wreath

The supposed original Protestant Advent wreath

Some histories suggest that the chancel light could have been an early form of the Advent wreath. Chancel is the space inside a church between the choir and the sanctuary. Some northern parts of Europe by the late Middle Ages had adopted the custom of hanging a wooden hoop with candles on it in the middle of the chancel from Christmas to Candlemas.

This lighted hoop, however, was intended to represent the Star of Bethlehem that the Wise Men followed to find Christ. It had nothing to do with the Advent Wreath with four candles, which count the weeks before Christmas.

A Protestant initiative

Histories on the modern Advent Wreath, or Adventskran, propose that its origin was in Germany in the 19th century. Protestant scholars point to a Lutheran minister who worked at a children's mission school in Hamburg as initiating the "first" official Advent wreath in 1839. He built a large wooden ring made out of an old cart wheel with 20 small red and 4 large white candles. The red candles were lit successively every weekday during Advent; on Sundays a large white candle was lit.

Protestant Advent wreath

In the U.S. the red candles characterize the Protestant wreath

The custom gained ground among Protestants in Germany and the wheel evolved into the smaller evergreen wreath with four red candles, which was adopted in homes and schools. A fifth white candle was sometimes placed in the center and lit on Christmas Day to represent the Birth of Christ.

By the end of the 19th century Catholics in Germany had adopted the custom as well, and in the 1920s and 1930s immigrants brought that Advent Wreath to the United States.

Its use in Catholic churches

The Advent Wreath was used strictly in homes and schools among Catholics, never in Catholic churches because there were no official liturgical prayers or ceremonies in the Rituale Romanum, the Church's official book of prayers and blessings.

With the innovations of Vatican II, a blessing of the wreath for the first Sunday of Advent to be said before Mass was included in the Book of Blessings for those countries that requested its inclusion. The wreath is to be lit before Mass at the first Sunday of Advent, and no prayers are said on the last three Sundays.

Today, many progressivist parish priests are including wreath ceremonies and prayers in the Mass, but these are not approved Church prayers and practices. Only in the last 20 or 30 years have these wreaths been introduced in many Catholic churches, so the practice is a new one, not an old one as you suggest in your question.

Purple and pink candles

Where did the practice of having three purple and one pink candle originate? You may be surprised to learn that this practice is an American innovation. If you google Adventskran (Advent Wreath in German), you will see that all the images show an evergreen wreath with four red candles. It is the German traditional wreath.

The use of an Advent Wreath in Catholic homes was encouraged by the progressivist Liturgical Movement in the 1940s and 1950s. Catholic women were encouraged to introduce more symbols and signs of the liturgical seasons in their homes to develop piety and religious customs in an increasingly commercialized society. One woman in particular, Therese Mueller, a lay leader in the Liturgical Movement and strongly involved with the Catholic Workers, is responsible for this change of color.

Cardinal Sean O'Malley

Against the Catholic tradition, the Conciliar Church is trying to elevate the Advent Wreath to a liturgical ceremony - above Card. Sean O'Malley lighting the wreath

In her series of articles on "The Liturgical Year in the Home," widely circulated throughout U.S. parishes, she encouraged the practice of the Advent Wreath, a custom borrowed from her native Germany. To "Catholicize" the custom more thoroughly, the red candles were switched to liturgical purple and rose, to match the liturgical colors of penitence and royal kingship. (Katherine Harmon, Lay Women in the Liturgical Movement in the US 1926-69, Liturgical Press, 2014, pp. 268-269).

It became the practice for Protestant temples and homes in the U.S. to use four red candles, and for Catholics to use the purple and pink candles. Some Anglicans, who also adopted the custom in the early 1900s, use blue or white.

In the spirit of ecumenism, today we find many progressivist Catholic churches abandoning the purple and pink and choosing all white or red candles.

Many American Catholics are surprised to learn that this custom is relatively unknown in Latin American countries, and even in Italy and Spain.

In brief, the Advent Wreath is just a pious custom practiced at home, and not a formal liturgical tradition.

In our opinion, it seems that the custom of the Advent Wreath may be adopted by those who feel an attraction to it. But its use should be restricted to their homes. It is not a liturgical practice of the Catholic Church that should be included in official ceremonies.

We hope this will be of help to you.

     Cordially,

     TIA correspondence desk

Posted December 17, 2015

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