Advent Wreath & Candles: Understanding the Meaning, History & Tradition

Laura Richie

Advent is a time of expectation and hope. “Advent” means “arrival” or “coming,” and it prompts us to pause each day in December and remember why Jesus came at Christmas. Traditions vary by country, but common ways of commemorating Jesus’ birth are through Advent calendars, wreaths, and candles. Ideally, any Advent tradition should involve families in a fun activity each day of December, helping them remember why we celebrate Christmas.

The History of Advent

The first mention of Advent occurred in the 300’s A.D at a meeting of church leaders called the Council of Sargossa. It gradually developed into a season that stretched across the month of December. One of the first mentions of an Advent calendar appeared in 1851 in a children’s book by Elise Averdieck. In the story, a little girl named Elisabeth listens to part of the Christmas story each day in December. She sings Christmas carols and puts a picture on her wallpaper. Once she has twenty-four pictures on the wall, she knows Christmas has finally arrived.

What Is the Advent Wreath?



The Advent wreath first appeared in Germany in 1839. A Lutheran minister working at a mission for children created a wreath out of the wheel of a cart. He placed twenty small red candles and four large white candles inside the ring. The red candles were lit on weekdays and the four white candles were lit on Sundays.

Eventually, the Advent wreath was created out of evergreens, symbolizing everlasting life in the midst of winter and death. The circle reminds us of God’s unending love and the eternal life He makes possible. Advent candles are often nestled in the evergreen wreath. Additional decorations, like holly and berries, are sometimes added. Their red color points ahead to Jesus’ sacrifice and death. Pinecones can symbolize the new life that Jesus brings through His resurrection. Families begin lighting a candle on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, and they light another candle each subsequent Sunday.

An Interactive Family Advent Prayer

Some families enjoy saying prayers and blessings as they light a candle each Sunday. This is an example of an interactive family prayer: 

Parent: Lord, you are the light of the world.
Child: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.
Parent: Heavenly Father, we long for your plan of rescue and redemption to be realized. Give us hearts that see Your beauty and wait in hope for You to make all things good and new again.
Child: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.
Parent: May Your light and love shine brightly in our hearts, spreading hope and peace to those around us.
Child: Amen.

Several books include sample prayers, such as The Essential Advent and Christmas Handbook.

What Are Advent Candles?



Advent candles shine brightly in the midst of darkness, reminding us that Jesus came as Light into our dark world. The candles are often set in a circular Advent wreath. In Scandinavia, Lutheran churches light a candle each day of December; by Christmas, they have twenty-four candles burning. Another Advent candle option is a single candle with twenty-four marks on the side--the candle is lit each day and allowed to melt down to the next day’s mark.

The most common Advent candle tradition, however, involves four candles. A new candle is lit on each of the four Sundays before Christmas. Each candle represents something different, although traditions vary. Often, the first, second, and fourth candles are purple; the third candle is rose-colored. Sometimes all the candles are red; in other traditions, all four candles are blue or white. Occasionally, a fifth white candle is placed in the middle and is lit on Christmas Day to celebrate Jesus’ birth.

  • The first candle symbolizes hope and is called the “Prophet’s Candle.” The prophets of the Old Testament, especially Isaiah, waited in hope for the Messiah’s arrival.
  • The second candle represents faith and is called “Bethlehem’s Candle.” Micah had foretold that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, which is also the birthplace of King David.
  • The third candle symbolizes joy and is called the “Shepherd’s Candle.” To the shepherd’s great joy, the angels announced that Jesus came for humble, unimportant people like them, too. In liturgy, the color rose signifies joy.
  • The fourth candle represents peace and is called the “Angel’s Candle.” The angels announced that Jesus came to bring peace--He came to bring people close to God and to each other again.
  • The (optional) fifth candle represents light and purity and is called “Christ’s candle.” It is placed in the middle and is lit on Christmas Day.

Other Advent Traditions

A few other Advent traditions practiced across the world include the following:

  • In Eastern Orthodox churches, believers participate in a Nativity Fast that begins November 15 and ends December 24. In this fast, they abstain from meat, dairy, fish, wine, and oil. They hope the fast will help them to better fix their eyes on God and His Kingdom.
  • In much of the Spanish-speaking world, a custom called “Posadas” is practiced. “Posadas” means “shelter” or “lodging,” and it is done from December 16-24. A group of people re-enact Joseph and Mary’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. They plan a route and travel from house to house, asking for lodging. Each home plays the role of “innkeeper” and refuses to host them. At the last house, everyone is invited inside for prayer and refreshments.
  • The Jesse tree involves homemade ornaments that are hung on a small tree. The ornaments represent an Old Testament prophecy about Jesus, or they may represent ancient ancestors in the lineage of Jesus. Various books are available to use along with the Jesse ornaments.
  • Santa Lucia (or St. Lucy) is done on the morning of December 13. The oldest daughter in the house dresses in a white robe with a red sash, and she wears a wreath with lighted candles on her head. She carries a breakfast of coffee, gingerbread cookies, and saffron buns to her parent’s bedroom. The younger daughters follow the eldest, carrying a single candle. The brothers, called “star boys,” wear tall, pointed hats.
  • In China, Christians light their homes with decorative paper lanterns. Some also decorate a “Tree of Light” with paper chains or flowers. 
  • The first printed Advent calendar was created in 1908 by a German named Gerhard Lang. As a boy, his mom would sew twenty-four cookies onto the lid of a box. Each day of December, he ate a cookie. This tradition inspired him to create a calendar entitled, “In the Land of the Christ Child.” Today, Advent calendars are a popular tool for families to count down the days until Christmas.

No matter how we choose to celebrate the season of Advent, let's remember the beauty and grace of Jesus. He entered our dark, broken world on the first Christmas long ago, and He’s working even now to restore light, peace, and life.

bookimageThis year, my new illustrated children’s book called The Advent Storybook: 25 Bible Stories Showing Why Jesus Came will be available on October 1, 2018. The Advent Storybook begins with Creation and journeys chronologically through ancient history, tracing God’s recurring promise to rescue us. The stories are clear and simple, written with 4-8-year-olds in mind, and each story is accompanied by a beautiful illustration. The Advent Storybook not only points to Jesus throughout the season of Advent, it shares the bigger Story behind Christmas. It brings families together to answer an important question: Why did Jesus come? The Advent Storybook can be used alongside other traditions or as an engaging alternative for families who haven’t yet established their own Advent tradition.

Laura Richie is a wife, homeschooling mom to three, and a registered nurse. After writing The Advent Storybook for her own children, Laura felt called to publish the book and share the story of God’s rescue with families across the world. 

This article is part of our larger Christmas and Advent resource library centered around the events leading up to the birth of Jesus Christ. We hope these articles help you understand the meaning and story behind important Christian holidays and dates and encourage you as you take time to reflect on all that God has done for us through his son Jesus Christ!

What is Christmas? Understanding History, Origin and Traditions
When Was Jesus Born? History of December 25th
The Birth of Jesus: Bible Story and Scripture Verses
What is Advent: Definition & Meaning Behind Christmas Tradition
The History and Meaning of the Advent Calendar
What Are Advent Readings & Why Are They Important?

Photo courtesy: ©Thinkstock/MKucova