The Advent wreath has been part of the Christian tradition since the Middle Ages. By 1600, formal practices had been adopted by both Catholics and Lutherans, to incorporate the Advent wreath into their Christmas preparations. The wreath is deeply symbolic, with meanings attached to its shape, the evergreens, its decorations and the colours of its candles. Advent begins on the Sunday nearest to St. Andrew's Day, 30 November, which could be on any date between 27 November and 3 December.
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The circular shape of the wreath, without beginning or end, is symbolic of God's eternity, the soul's immortality and Christ's everlasting life. The wreath may consist of a variety of evergreens, such as laurel, pine, holly, yew and cedar. Laurel represents triumph over suffering; pine, holly and yew are symbolic of immortality; and cedar signifies strength. Holly's sharp leaves are reminiscent of the crown of thorns worn by Jesus Christ at his crucifixion. The Advent wreath is often decorated with pine cones or nuts, which signify life and resurrection.
Traditionally, the wreath has four candles, which represent the four weeks of Advent. Each week is for one thousand years to stand for the 4,000 years between Adam and Eve and the Birth of the Saviour. In the Catholic church three of the candles are purple, and the remaining one pink. Purple is symbolic of the good work and sacrifices, including prayer and penance, carried out during Advent. The pink candle mirrors the pink ceremonial robes worn by the priest at Mass on the third Sunday of Advent, known as Gaudete Sunday or Sunday of Joy. This marks the the halfway point of Advent and is a day of celebrating and anticipating the Lord's second coming.
A variation on the traditional four-candle wreath is a fifth candle, which is white to symbolise Christ and lit on Christmas Eve. Another adaptation is to replace the purple and pink candles with four white candles, to be lit during the festive season. The majority of Protestant churches use blue instead of purple candles to distinguish between Advent and Lent, which is also represented by the colour purple. Royal blue may be used to signify royalty, or bright blue to represent the night sky.
Lighting the candles
Most Christian families place their Advent wreath in the centre of the dinner table and light the candles every Sunday during Advent, after the food is blessed. On the First Sunday of Advent, tradition is for the father of the family to bless the wreath and say a prayer. One of the purple candles is then lit by the youngest child of the family. The following week, the same candle is lit together with another purple candle, this time by the eldest child of the family. During the third week of Advent, the mother of the family lights the two purple candles that were lit the week before, as well as the pink candle. In the final week of Advent, the priest lights every candle on the wreath.
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