The American Transformation of the Advent Wreath

Two years ago, Shawn wrote an excellent article on Variations in Form of the Advent Wreath. To briefly summarize, the Advent wreath was native to Germany, where it seems to have begun life as a Lutheran devotion before being cautiously adopted by Catholics. By the time it assumed a more-or-less standard form in the late 1800s, the German version commonly featured four candles of the same color, typically red or white. This is still the case today, as anyone can easily verify with an image search on its German name  Adventskranz.

In America, however, this arrangement was modified slightly to assign each of the candles the liturgical color of the Sundays of Advent: 3 violet, and 1 rose. This regional development is often mentioned in articles discussing the history of the devotion, but they tend to be a little vague about the circumstances.

Thankfully, however, Katharine Harmon's research on women in the liturgical movement helps fill in the blanks, and it is worth highlighting her findings here and combining it with other accounts from the era to give some additional context on its development in America. In this way, I hope, we can finally give proper credit where due.

In her landmark 1955 book, Around the Year with the Trapp family, Austrian-born Maria von Trapp describes her bewilderment on arriving in America in 1938, saying that at the time "nobody seemed to know what an Advent wreath is". For her family "it was not a question of whether or not we would have an Advent wreath. The wreath was a must. Advent would be unthinkable without it." Judging by one Philadelphia shopkeeper's response that the last Advent hoop he had sold was "around the turn of the century", there was evidently a time when some German-American families were still keeping the tradition alive, but this custom had long faded, at least in Philadelphia.

Mrs. von Trapp could not have known at the time, but that situation would change thanks to Dr. Therese Mueller and her husband Franz, German-born sociologists. Deeply involved in Catholic youth movements in their native country, they eventually emigrated to America in the mid-1930s with their children. Mueller quickly got involved with the Liturgical Movement, writing books as well as articles in Orate Fratres on family life and liturgy. In Our Children's Year of Grace (1943), she describes the custom of her family in her native Cologne:

On the Saturday evening before the first Sunday of Advent we wind a wreath of evergreen, pine needles, cedar branches, or holly, large enough to hold four red candles, equally spaced, and suspend it with four red ribbons (or purple ones if the candles are white) tied on the spaces between the candles.

The symbolism of the four candles, which we can see at this date were still all red, she described as follows:

The circle represents the unceasing flow of sun years or the sun itself following its prescribed course; the candles divide it into time, which we can measure and count--four of them for the thousands of years of waiting for the arrival of the Savior, remembered on the four Sundays of Advent, as we prepare for Christmas, the birthday of Christ. 

The book's Preface was written by Monsignor Martin B. Hellriegel (1890-1981) of St. Louis, Missouri. Msgr. Hellriegel was born in Heppelheim, Germany and was assigned as a seminarian to the U.S. to work with German-speaking Catholics in the Midwest, where he became an energetic proponent of the liturgical movement and the arts. Many Catholics are no doubt familiar with his classic hymn "To Jesus Christ our Sovereign King", written in 1941 expressly as a rebuke to the Nazi state. 

Mueller's desire to revive the Advent wreath found a sympathetic ear in Hellriegel. In his 1946 address to the Liturgical Conference on "The Family in Christ", he recounted his own memories of his childhood in Heppelheim at the turn of the 20th century:

In the living room of our home hung the Advent wreath with its four candles, one for each week, lighted every evening for the Advent devotion around our home-altar, consisting of Advent hymns, the reading of the Annunciation, Birth and Childhood of Jesus, and concluded by Advent prayers.

Harmon's research indicates that it was Hellriegel who suggested to Mueller that the implicit symbolism of the four red candles for the four Sundays be made explicit, by coloring the candles according to the Sundays. 

It is, therefore, to these two German emigres that the credit must be given for not only popularizing this old German custom in America but also for giving it its present form.

As the custom caught on in America in the early years, there seems to have been an intrinsic urge to colorize the Advent wreath, and a plethora of variations on how to do so. Some kept the traditional German 4 candles of one color but then used colored ribbons, e.g. violet ones for Advent and red and gold ones for Christmas, as indicated in Orate Fratres (1941). In a 1952 article in an Episcopalian magazine, the ribbons that suspend the wreath are in violet. An article on domestic Christmas devotions in a 1962 issue of Better Homes and Gardens (imagine that!) possibly shows purple ribbons with a white-candled wreath, while a subsequent issue from 1968 shows a holly wreath with very modern-looking 3 purple and 1 rose candles (curiously enough, in a purported exhibit of Austrian customs; elsewhere Austria is cited as following the German coloration, as per this source from 1936.). The Sisters of Social Service, a Benedictine congregation from California, were using 4 purple candles in 1943.

To reiterate  Shawn's original point, none of these variations are "wrong"—and even at our house we have used white votive candles in purple and rose votive holders when convenient. Some Americans are still partial to the traditional German style, and I must admit that it retains a classic old Christmas charm that is quite appealing.

Nevertheless, it is fair to say from our vantage point in the 21st century that Dr. Mueller's and Msgr. Hellriegel's arrangement of 3 violet and 1 rose candles has become the standard Advent Wreath throughout North America. And its use has spread even further afield, throughout Europe and other locales.  

There are also additional regional variations. Milan's Ambrosian Rite has a longer Advent of 6 Sundays, so its wreath naturally boasts 6 candles, as do the wreaths of Byzantine Rite Catholics and Orthodox who have adopted the practice. One also finds among Spanish and Portuguese speakers unusual variations that I am wholly unfamiliar with and have not had time to research: namely, four differently-colored candles in purple, green, red, and white. 

So this old German custom has spread far beyond its original homeland, and there is a final point worth making about that. 

Both Mueller and Hellriegel loved their homeland but became estranged from it through its embrace of National Socialism. And notwithstanding all its bluff and bluster, the great war machine of the Reich turned to dust while the little Advent Wreath, humbly proclaiming Christ as King of the German hearth, was just beginning to win the hearts of Catholics in many other nations. In that sense, the 1940s present a pretty stark contrast between the cities of men and the city of God.

Join in the conversation on our Facebook page.