Although I had a very typical Catholic education for someone growing up in the mid-last century, the Advent wreath was simply not part of my youth. The Sisters of Mercy never lit an Advent wreath at St. Charles school and the LaSalle Christian bothers never introduced the leafy boughs at LaSalle Academy. It was only at Our Lady of Providence Seminary in the late 1950s that I first encountered the Advent wreath. A fairly large wreath was laid out, not in the chapel, but in the foyer of the school where the proper daily prayer could be recited before entering the dining room for the evening meal. The wreath then was clearly envisioned as a devotional practice rather than as a liturgical practice as later developments would suggest. By the time I was ordained and in parish life, weekly Mass booklets found in pews would contain the simple Advent ritual of weekly candle lighting as a prelude to the Mass, almost as a substitute for the Penitential Rite and integral to the authentic observance of the season. This practice was properly eliminated. Although the Advent wreath can provide a teachable moment, the greenery is better left to Catholic devotional life rather than providing any intrusion into Catholic liturgical life. Nowadays successive candles may simply be lighted before Mass with no other formalities that might overshadow the Church’s authentic liturgical rites.
As is true of the Christmas tree, the Advent wreath originated in the wintry regions of Germany where green boughs from laurel, holly and fir trees were brought into the house to compensate for the lack of colorful scenery outdoors. Popular with Lutherans, the wreath did not take present form until a pastor in the early nineteenth century employed the circle and four candles as an instruction for children to count the four weeks toward Christmas.
Obviously the Advent wreath is a mixture of rich symbolism from nature itself. The circular wreath, without beginning or end, may easily connote eternity, and thus remind the devout soul of the ultimate goal of all religious life, unending happiness with God in heaven. And of course composed of evergreens, the wreath would also connote hope in everlasting life. Less popularly, the circle may recall the crown placed on the head of Christ during his agony, especially if the crown consists of holly branches with their prickly leaves. Even this prickly crown might also signify victory, the victory of Christ over sin and death.
Four candles clearly indicate the four weeks of Advent as currently celebrated in the liturgical calendar. But this number has been far from consistent in the Church’s devotional history. Some Christian communities celebrated Advent as far back as the sixth century. Some celebrated the season from the feast of St. Andrew (November 30) as is done today; others celebrated the season from the feast of St. Martin (November 11), lengthening the season to forty days or seven weeks akin to Lent. Fast and abstinence were the only emblems of this season known to our ancestors in the faith. While the Church officially continued to observe Advent in her liturgical practice and in the Divine Office, the popular observance of this liturgical season faded somewhat in the early Middle Ages. The modern popular observance is due much more to Protestant eagerness than Catholic fervor.
Traditionally the Advent wreath is adorned with three purple candles which are lighted successively each week and one rose colored candle which is lighted in turn on the third Sunday of Advent. The cheerier or rose colored candle signifies that, even in the midst of a subdued liturgical season, there is hope of deliverance. The opening words of the Mass on that Sunday affirm the positive denouement of the Advent season. Gaudete!, that is, Rejoice! heartens the believer that deliverance is at hand. Some enthusiasts place a white candle in the midst of the wreath symbolizing Christ, a faint testimony to more liturgically correct Easter candle so vital to that season and to the celebration of Baptism. Some homilists have understood the four candles, and hence the four weeks, to stand for the four stages of religious history: Creation, Incarnation, Redemption and Judgment.
The all-consuming gift-buying atmosphere that permeates the month of December abetted with tales of Santa Claus, elves, reindeer, sleighs as well as Tiny Tim and old Scrooge and the Grinch spawn a festive and frantic mood that pervades the whole of society — believer and non-believer alike. Historically Advent had been a somber season, humbly looking forward to the arrival of a heavenly Savior rather than acquisitively anticipating some earthly booty. Even today, a serious thought or two on the significance of Advent would not be out of place.