When the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year, she makes present this ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Savior’s first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for his second coming. By celebrating the precursor’s birth and martyrdom, the Church unites herself to his desire: “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
—Catechism of the Catholic Church, 524; see Revelation 22:17; John 3:30
The Church year begins with the first Sunday of Advent. During this four-week season, we wait in great expectation to celebrate the birth of Jesus and look forward to his second coming. The Advent wreath is a popular sacramental that feeds our devotion to the Lord during this season.
As with many of the older customs of the Church, not much is known about the history of the Advent wreath. Most people agree that a wreath similar to what we use today originated in the sixteenth century in Germany, among the Lutherans. The tradition was brought to America with the German immigrants and became popular in the Catholic faith around the 1920s.
The Advent wreath is a symbol of the Light overcoming spiritual darkness. As the laurel wreath was symbolic of victory, so the wreath of evergreens represents the One who is to come and win over death. The circular shape represents the eternity he secures for us. Many people use holly in their wreaths to signify the crown of thorns, the red berries reminding us of the blood that Jesus shed for our salvation.
The three purple candles in the wreath symbolize preparation, penance, and sacrifice. We light the one pink candle on the third Sunday of Advent, called Gaudete Sunday, meaning “rejoice.” The Entrance Antiphon for this day is “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice! The Lord is near” (Philippians 4:4–5).
Some people include a white candle in the center of the wreath. This is the Christ candle, to be lit on Christmas Day. The purple and pink candles can be replaced with all white candles and can continue to be lit throughout the Christmas season . The gradual increase of light throughout the Advent season illuminates into Light for the World, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The Advent wreath in the home calls up many different traditions. Whether we make one from a Styrofoam ring or buy one that matches our other Christmas decorations, the wreath is meant to bring us to prayer, to lead us to the Light, and to renew our desire for him in our daily lives. Families seem to develop their own ways of gathering together during this hectic time of year, to read and to pray and to light candles. This sacramental reminds us to slow down, to remember why we give one another gifts, to think about whom we are celebrating.
Another favorite family sacramental during the Advent season is the Advent calendar. Also originating in Germany, the cardboard calendars generally have a Christmas scene on the front, with twenty-five cut-out doors that can be opened, one each day from December 1 until Christmas Day. Each door reveals a scene or a Scripture verse or both that lead us through the season to the birth of Jesus.