Why are wreaths part of Advent season?

By | November 24, 2010

So farmers took the wheels off their useless farm carts, decorated them with branches, ribbons and candles, to symbolize the sun and the longed-for growing season, and hung the wheels in their houses, hoping to bring about the return of the sun.


The Advent wreath, with a candle marking each week of the season, is a traditional symbol of the liturgical period. (CNS photo | Lisa A. Johnston)

Farmers have always had to wait patiently. As the second reading for the Third Sunday of Advent tells us, it is a lesson for Christians: “See how the farmer waits for the precious fruits of the earth, being patient until it receives the early and the late rains” (Jas 5:8).

Cartwheels were a powerful symbol and, by the 16th century, the Lutherans of Germany had adapted the wheel custom into the Advent wreath — Adventskrantz in German.

The image reminds us that Advent is a season of looking both forward and backward, remembering the two comings of Christ. Looking back to Christ’s first coming propels us forward toward his future coming, just as a cartwheel moves back and forth across a planted field.

Today, few of us use cartwheels and no one would think of putting a decorated car tire in church. But the symbolism still works:

• The circle. The wheel going round represents eternity, without beginning or end: Christ’s eternal victory over the cycle of life and death and God’s all encircling love.

Send us your Advent wreath photos

This Advent, The Compass asks readers to submit a photo of an Advent wreath — a family wreath or one from church. We will choose some of the photos to compile an Advent/Christmas slide show for our Web site

 The slide show will go up on the site during the last days of Advent. Submit your photos, by e-mail, to [email protected]. (They should be sent in a larger size, or higher resolution.) One photo per family.

• Evergreens. Pine trees around our houses stay green all year, symbolizing life even in winter. The evergreen has long been a symbol of eternal life and God’s faithfulness.

• Purple. Liturgically, the church uses color to highlight specific mysteries. The purple of Advent is a blue purple, not the red purple of Lent. Since this season’s main focus is one of expectancy, think of the purple sky just before sunrise.

• Pink. All right, it’s actually rose, a rarely used liturgical color symbolizing rejoicing. It is used on the Third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, named from the Latin word for “rejoice.” The theme is one of joyful expectancy because Christmas is near.

• Candles. There are four on an Advent wreath, representing the Sundays of Advent. They also traditionally represent the 4,000 years of the world before Christ’s coming — the time of “the people who walked in darkness (who) have seen a great light” (Is 9:1). In the Gospels, Christ is referred to as a light — both by Luke at his Nativity (2:32) and in the opening lines of John’s Gospel (1:5). On some modern Advent wreathes, there is a fifth candle. It is white and called the Christ candle, to remind us of the light of eternal life that Christ has won for us.

So as you spin the Advent wreath to light its candles, remember that your wreath is more than candles, ribbons and pine boughs. It is a symbol of faith, reminding us of the story of salvation — that the eternal God so loved us that he sent his Son, the Light of the World, to redeem us and guide our path to eternal life.

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