Preparing for Advent: The Custom of the Advent Wreath

With November fast approaching, Advent will soon be upon us. While we are not there quite yet of course, if people and families are to be prepared or it, they need time to think about how they might  observe it. In view of that, I wanted to begin to make a few suggestions around some of the customs of Advent.  

There are, in fact, a great many popular customs associated Advent and one of the most widely adopted and loved customs of Advent is surely the Advent wreath. While not Catholic in its origins, it nonetheless is easily adapted to Catholic purposes and is a beautiful way to mark the progression of Advent to the Nativity.

Fr. Francis X. Weiser, SJ, in his work, The Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs, comments on the origins of the Advent wreath as follows:
The Advent wreath originated a few hundred years ago among the Lutherans of eastern Germany. It probably was suggested by one of the many light symbols which were used in folklore at the end of November and beginning of December... The Christians in medieval times kept many of these lights and fire symbols alive as popular traditions and ancient folklore. In the sixteenth century the custom started of using such lights as a religious symbol of Advent in the houses of the faithful. This practice quickly spread among the Protestants of eastern Germany and was soon accepted by Protestants and Catholics in other parts of the country. Recently it has not only found its way to America, but has been spreading so rapidly that it is already a cherished custom in many homes.

The Advent wreath is exactly what the word implies, a wreath of evergreens (yew or fir or laurel), made in various sizes. It is either suspended from the ceiling or placed on a table, usually in front of the family shrine. Fastened to the wreath are four candles standing upright, at equal distances. These candles represent the four weeks of Advent.

Daily at a certain time (usually in the evening), the family gathers for a short religious exercise. Every Sunday of Advent one more candle is lit, until all four candles shed their cheerful light to announce the approaching birthday of the Lord. All other lights are extinguished in the room, and only the gentle glow of the live candles illuminates the darkness. After some prayers, which are recited for the grace of a good and holy preparation for Christmas, the family sings one of the traditional Advent hymns or a song in honor of Mary.

The traditional symbolism of the Advent wreath reminds the faithful of the Old Testament, when humanity was "sitting in the darkness and in the shadow of death" (Luke 2:79); when the prophets, illumined by God, announced the Redeemer; and when the hearts of men glowed with the desire for the Messiah. The wreath -- an ancient symbol of victory and glory -- symbolizes the "fulfillment of time" in the coming of Christ and the glory of His birth.

In some sections of Europe it is customary for persons with the name of John or Joan to have the first right to light the candles on the Advent wreath and Christmas tree, because John the Evangelist starts his Gospel by calling Christ the "Light of the World" and John the Baptist was the first one to see the light of divinity shining about the Lord at His baptism in the Jordan.
There are a number of variations on the Advent wreath. In North America it is popular to use three violet and one rose candle, symbolizing the respective liturgical colours of the four Sundays of Advent. In Germany, red candles are instead used.

Regardless of the particular approach you adopt, it is important that we use items of beauty and quality. These things not only inspire us and uplift us, they also speak to us of the dignity and value of the sacred mysteries.

While we are accustomed to thinking this way with regard to our churches, my own recommendation then is that, wherever possible and practical, we should likewise bring this over into the our "domestic churches" as well. Whatever you use therefore, let them be items of beauty and quality.  One of the reasons I am precisely approaching this subject with Advent still a few weeks away is so that people can plan for this.

It might be asked, why worry about this? Surely the symbols are enough? While it is true that the symbols have their own inherent value, we shouldn't take a reductionist view of these things. The quality (and beauty) which we bring to these things speak to the importance we give to them. We should always bring the very best we can offer.

So then, how might this be manifest? For my part I'd recommend the use of real greenery for your wreaths. In addition, beeswax candles, instead of paraffin candles, would also be very good. Such candles are not only natural and traditional, they are also ecclesiastical in nature and have a wonderful scent -- and here it is important to remember the positive impact that is to be found in the engagement of the various senses. Beeswax candles are most commonly found in unbleached form nowadays, but if you feel like you'd like to have the liturgical colours of Advent represented, as in in the North American tradition, there are other ways to accomplish this. One way is seen above through the use of coloured ribbon.

If, however, you'd prefer to stick closer to the Germanic roots of the wreath, you might try something like this with red and white candles:

For my own part, given North America's consumerist rush into Christmas, I prefer to utilize a wreath whose colours are more clearly distinct from those associated with Christmas itself, but this is just my personal preference and there is certainly nothing wrong with opting for the Germanic tradition.

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