The history of Advent wreaths goes back quite far – so far, in fact, that no one really knows when they began to be used, and how they were developed. By the Middle Ages, however, the custom of using a circle of greens and four candles in Advent was becoming common in Europe.
An Advent wreath can be made of any kind of material, as long as the material is shaped into a circle and four candles – normally placed like the points of a compass – are used. Evergreen plants are often used to make the wreath. These may symbolize a variety of things depending on the kind of greenery used. For example, the sharp points of holly with its red berries calls to mind the crown of thorns and Christ’s blood. In general, however, the greenery symbolizes new life; the fact that they are ever-green and never “die” also suggests continuous life as well as the unchanging nature of God. The circle is a symbol of the eternity of God.
Every Sunday in Advent, another candle is lit in the wreath: one candle in the first week; two candles in the second week, three candles in the third week, and four candles in the last week of Advent. The closer we come to the advent of Christ – the Light of the World – the more light is given by the Advent wreath.
In English-speaking countries, the candles of the wreath have customarily been three white – symbolizing the purity and innocence of the Christ-Child – and one rose, which is the color of the vestments the priest wears on the third Sunday in Advent (Gaudete Sunday). However in recent years, it has become more popular to have three purple candles to match the priest’s vestments in the first, second and fourth weeks of Advent. The purple color signifies the penances, prayers, sacrifices and good works that we undertake in Advent to prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ. If you do not have purple or pink candles, you may use white and perhaps decorate your wreath with purple and pink ribbons.
Blessing the Advent Wreath
If you are using your Advent wreath in a family setting, the father of the family traditionally blesses the Advent wreath on the Saturday evening before the first Sunday in Advent (the vigil of the first Sunday in Advent), or on the Sunday itself. Usually, this is done before the evening meal, and the Advent candle is left burning during the meal. (In other situations, another person leads the prayers, as appropriate.)
Leader: Our help is in the name of the Lord.
All: Who has made heaven and earth.
Leader: Let us pray. O God, by Whose word all things are sanctified, pour forth Thy blessing upon this wreath, and grant that we who use it may prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ and may receive from Thee abundant graces. Through Christ our Lord.
The leader sprinkles the wreath with holy water.
The prayer for the first week is then read:
Leader: O Lord, we beseech You, stir up Your power, and come; that by Your protection we may deserve to be rescued from the threatening dangers of our sins, and to be saved by Your deliverance. Who live and reign with God the Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, world without end.
One (purple) candle is now lit. This prayer is prayed every evening during the first week, and the candle is left burning during the evening meal.
The prayer for the second week is prayed before lighting two (purple) candles:
Leader: Stir up our hearts, O Lord, to prepare the ways of Your Only-begotten Son, that we may attain to serve You with purified minds, through His advent. Who with you lives and reigns in the unity of the Holy Spirit, world without end.
This prayer is prayed before every evening meal during the second week, and the two (purple) candles are left burning throughout the meal.
The prayer for the third week is prayed before lighting two purple and one rose-coloured candle:
Leader: Incline Your ear to our prayers, we beseech You, O Lord, and brighten the darkness of our minds by the grace of Your visitation. Who live and reign with God the Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, world without end.
This prayer and the lighting of the three candles is repeated daily during the third week, before the evening meal, and the candles are left burning throughout the meal.
The prayer for the fourth week is prayed before all four candles on the Advent wreath are lit:
Leader: Stir up your power, we beseech You, O Lord, and come, and succor us with great might, that, by the help of Your grace, what is hindered by our sins, may be hastened by the bounty of your mercy. Who live and reign with God the Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, world without end.
As in previous weeks, all four candles are lit every evening before the meal, and are left burning throughout the meal.