What to make of the Advent Wreath, or When the periphery moves to the center

The great Robert Taft, SJ (only recently having passed on to another shore where he now stands in a greater Light) famously reminded us that the “soft points” in the liturgy (points of transition) are magnets for accretions, sticky places that easily caught the passing whims and creative endeavors of priests and practitioners on its branches. I think there is a somewhat related pattern of interpretation and then practice that occurs for evangelicals who come into a tradition with historic liturgy.

On this first Sunday of Advent, wreathes appeared in churches and the first candle was lit. The wreath is one of those pieces of liturgical accoutrement that have taken on a life of their own. And in my experience it is one of those practices that has become for people new to the historic calendar a thing of disproportionate importance to the season. It is treated as an ancient artifact of rites forged in the earliest recesses of early Christians. But it is nothing of the sort (I’ve reproduced at the end a bit from a history that should be helpful, written by Bruce Russell for the Advent 2005 issue of the Newsletter of the Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island Branch of the Prayer Book Society of Canada). This fetishizing (is that too strong a word?) of the Advent wreath as something somehow intrinsic to the season is similar to the unity candle which appeared for weddings (even Catholic and Episcopal ones) because, apparently, the liturgy, the rings, and the couple themselves just didn’t contain enough “outward and visible sign.”

This is not to say that the Advent wreath is something bad or a practice about which we should be suspicious, theologically or otherwise. The current practice is to have the candle color match that of the traditional vestments colors in the West: violet for Sundays 1, 2, and 4, and rose for Advent 3, who “lightening” seems to stem from the incipit of the old Introit text for that day (Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete from Phil 4:4), a parallel to Lent IV, Laetare Sunday, whose traditional Introit was Lætare Jerusalem: et conventum facite omnes qui diligitis eam.

But what should be resisted by those Catholics and others whose days and months are always shaped by the church year’s rhythms is the association of particular Sundays with themes marked by poorly-written “liturgettes”, whether they be Joy, Peace, Hope, and Love or some other quartet. The principal problem with these themes is they bare only a slight relationships to the lectionary readings and collects for the day and thus serve only to clutter the liturgy, not enrich its celebration. Furthermore, many of the narrative “explanations” are not very well written and the prayers are forgettable. With three lessons, a psalm, and a collect already (not to mention the minor propers, for those who use them), still more prayers and readings are accretions that we should take care to avoid.

The Book of Occasional Services 2003 in the Episcopal Church (my own ecclesial home) says this about the Advent Wreath:

The Advent Wreath is a visual symbol marking the progress of the season of Advent. When it used in the church, no special prayers or ceremonial elaboration beyond what is described on page 143 of the Prayer Book is desirable (p. 30).

The focus and tendency toward simplicity here is to be heartily encouraged. The place in the Prayer Book toward which this text points describes how to adapt the “Order of Worship for the Evening,” which is a lamp-lighting rite that can be appended to an Evening Office or the Mass (an attempt to revive a practice from the so-called Cathedral Office in antiquity and which didn’t seem to catch on in any major way, as far as I can tell). The relevant portion from the BCP is this simple direction:

During Advent, the lighting of an Advent Wreath may take place after the Prayer for Light (BCP, p. 143).

In light of this, here is what I suggest for those in the Episcopal Church, based on these directions and what is found in the Order for Evening. This would be the opening of the Mass:

 

After the opening hymn has concluded and the ministers are in their place, the Celebrant begins

                     Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
People        And blessed be His kingdom, now and forever.”
or
Celebrant   Light and peace, in Jesus Christ our Lord
People         Thanks be to God. [from BCP, p. 109]

The following, or some other seasonally appropriate Short Lesson of Scripture, is then read [from BCP, p. 109]
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together (Is. 40:4-5).

Celebrant         Let us pray.

First Sunday of Advent
O God, who has caused this these holy days to shine with the brightness of the true Light, your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord: Grant that we, who joyfully receive him as our Redeemer, may with sure confidence behold him when he comes to be our Judge; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. [adapted from the two collects for the Nativity, BCP, p. 110, 212]

Advent II-IV
Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. [First Sunday of Advent; BCP p. 111, 211]

Christmas Eve
Almighty God, you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word: Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. [Collect for the First Sunday after Christmas; BCP p. 111, 213]

As the candles of the Advent Wreath are lit, a verse from a fitting Advent hymn is sung, either by the congregation or the choir. E.g. “Redeemer of the nations, come” (55; vs. 1-5); “Creator of the stars of night” (60; vs. 1-5); “O heavenly Word, eternal Light” (63; vs. 1-4, 1)—Hymns numbers are from the Hymnal 1982.

The Kyrie or Trisagion is then sung.

The Celebrant then turns to the people and says,
The Lord be with you.
People         And also with you.
Celebrant    Let us pray.

The Celebrant then sings or says the Collect of the Day.

 


From the piece written by Bruce Russell for the Advent 2005 issue of the Newsletter of the Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island Branch of the Prayer Book Society of Canada

Many familiar observances of the Church year are of more recent origin than we might suspect. That does not necessarily imply that they are not constructive and worthy additions to our worship. Anyone looking for an Advent wreath blessing, for example, in The Canadian Book of Occasional Offices will be disappointed, although the blessing of the Christmas Crib is given. A search a little further a field, say in Percy Dearmer’s Parson’s Handbook , will also suspiciously draw a blank. This supposedly ancient observance seems unheard of by either of these authorities, both of whom one would assume would have loved to digress upon such a practice. That they fail to do so might well arouse one’s suspicions, as indeed it should. Dearmer does mention what were known as trendles or rowells. “A pretty medieval practice, which might well be revived as a good way of marking the season, was to hang a wooden hoop with candles on it in the midst of the chancel at Christmas…” (p. 144-145) Dearmer cites as his source on this topic J.T. Micklethwaite, whose Ornaments of the Rubric , published in 1897 and one of the pioneering classics of the Alcuin Club, where it is stated:

In churchwardens’ accounts we sometimes meet with an entry like ‘pd. for a Rope for the Rowyll’ ‘for a bolte and a swevyll to the trendyll’ or for wax for one or the other. The Rowell and the Trendle were I think the same thing. It seems to have belonged to Christmastide and to have been used in many places, but not to have had any special ceremony connected with it as the paschal candle had. It should perhaps be regarded more as a piece of decoration, such as the wreaths and banners which people put up now, than an ecclesiastical ornament. Each word means a wheel, and the thing itself seems to have been a hoop with candles fixed to it which was hung up in the chancel from Christmas to Candlemas, and was intended to represent the star of the Wise men.” (p. 44)

A Directory of Ceremonial, Part II , first published in 1930 as the Alcuin Club Tract XIX, while not mentioning Advent wreaths, does recommend the revival of the trendle at Christmas. “In commemoration of the star of Bethlehem, a hoop supporting a ring of candles may be hung up in the midst of the chancel or from the rood beam. The candles would be lighted at all sung services from Christmas Eve to the Epiphany inclusive. This ornament is called the trendle. It should be kept hanging till Candlemas, when it will be lighted for the last time.” [pp. 12-13]

It is also possible that Micklethwaite was mistaken and that the rowell or trendle were what we know as Advent wreaths, but I suspect he is probably right. I have checked various more recent Anglican liturgical manuals for mention of Advent wreaths also without success. Cyril E. Pocknee’s 1965 “revised and rewritten” 13th edition of Dearmer’s classic, extensively recast in the spirit of its times, is equally silent on the subject. The Ven. Michael Perry’sA Handbook of Parish Worship , published by Mowbray in 1977, a work much influenced by liturgical modernism, also makes no mention of wreaths although Advent wreaths were widely used in North American Anglican churches and cathedrals well before their time. Archdeacon Perry does go on at some length about “Christingles.” These were apparently being promoted at that time by the Church of England Children’s Society. ”A Cristingle consists of an orange which symbolizes the globe, wound round with a piece of red ribbon (the blood of Christ) and speared with cocktail-sticks carrying pieces of dried fruit (the fruits of the earth). The whole is surmounted by a candle (the light of Christ…” Had the worthy Archdeacon been as familiar with Advent wreaths, as he was with Lessons and Carols, Cribs and Christmas trees etc. it is difficult to imagine that he would not have waxed similarly on pretty bows tied to purple and pink candles!

The earliest Anglican reference to Advent wreaths I have found is in a still useful collection of Advent daily meditations assembled by Norman W. Goodacre, then Chaplain of Queen Ethelburgha School in Harrogate. In the preface to Advent Candles, published by Mowbray in 1963, Goodacre describes and dates his first encounter with the custom. “Just before the war, a German Lutheran girl came to England to learn the language and take up nursing…. When Marie Charlotte [Lorey] stayed with us in 1937 she brought an Advent Star with four Advent candles. Lutherans light these four candles on the Sundays before Christmas. They symbolise the preparation for the festive season.” [p. 9]

Advent wreaths, like Christmas trees, are hardly ancient observances amongst English speaking peoples, both being transplanted, or perhaps one could say translated, in relatively recent times. It is well known that the Christmas tree was brought to England by the Prince Consort Albert in the early years of Victoria’s reign. Its independent use in North America could well have spread from German and Scandinavian immigrants to their neighbors somewhat earlier, but this is uncertain. The popularity of Advent wreaths can with certainty be traced to the post-war American liturgical movement drawing on both German Catholic and Lutheran influences. I remember as a child they were being promoted as a novelty by the publications of the Liturgical Press, the American mid-western Benedictine publishers of the journal Worship . How exactly the tradition emerged and spread is difficult to determine.

None of the various suggested origins of the Advent wreath withstand much scrutiny. In Sweden where Advent is marked in various ways it became the custom only in the 1920’s to light a candle each week in anticipation of Christmas, but it was only sometime later that round wooden or metal supports began to be made, The possibly related practice of the crown, similar in form to that worn by the Sisters of St. Brigit and to which are attached five candles, that is worn by the lussegubbar , the girl chosen to represent St. Lucy on Dec. 13th, can only be traced back to the eighteenth century. Another common theory is that the practice has its origin among the Germanic tribes who lit wheels of fire at the winter solstice and that St. Boniface Christianized this practice inventing the Advent wreath in the eight century. I have yet to trace any reliable or very ancient source for this contention. My suspicion is the practice is actually Danish, as it is in Denmark where it has been most taken up in homes and is most rooted in national culture. I suspect that it was spread from Denmark through European Lutheran connections during the twentieth century, that it was adopted by German Catholics from their Lutheran neighbors, and then spread by the Liturgical movement to North America. Incidentally, the Danes use white candles with red ribbons, or sometimes red candles. The purple and pink candle option is an even more recent practice which I suspect was initiated by Church supply companies eager for another opportunity to sell unnecessary and overpriced items to gullible altar guilds.

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21 comments

  1. Not Johann Heinrich Wichern (1808-1881) of the Rauhe Haus (and Inner Mission) in early to mid 19th-century Hamburg, then?

    It’s been a decade or two now since I last looked for scholarship on this, admittedly, but I’m thinking of pp. 235 ff. of Adventus Domini: Geschichte und Theologie des Advents in Liturgie und Brauchtum der westliche Kirche, by Wilhelm Josef Schlierf (Mönchengladbach: Kühlen, 1989), and “The origin and spread of the Advent wreath,” by Mary Jane Haemig (Lutheran quarterly 19 (2005): 332-343).

    The latter says that it was in 1860 that the decorative pine boughs were “wove[n] . . . into the wagon wheel sized candelabra” that from 1839 had contained “four large white [candles] for the Sundays” (!), plus “19 small red ones for the weekdays” (334). Etc.

    (Undoubtedly, though, you’ve more recent scholarship that, as I’ve said, I haven’t gone looking for.)

  2. Two items published since (can’t tell for sure how scholarly; both are to be found in the University of Tübingen’s Index Theologicus, but neither appears to be much more than an extended pamphlet). Note the association of the second (the most recent in a series) with Rauhe Haus:

    Diósi, Dávid. Der Adventskranz: seine Geschichte und Symbolik. Cluj-Napoca: Presa Univ. Clujeană, 2008.

    Ehlert, Thomas. Der Adventskranz und seine Geschichte. Norderstedt: Agentur des Rauhen Hauses Hamburg, 2006.

    This following, which is available at the link online, concurs with Schlierf (1989) and Haemig (2005) in fingering mid-19th-century Hamburg:

    Bausinger, Hermann. Der Adventskranz: ein Uralter Brauch? Stuttgart: Theiss, 1982. https://publikationen.uni-tuebingen.de/xmlui/handle/10900/47904.

    Haemig cites that same author herself, but in Württembergisches Jahrbuch für Volkskunde (1970): 9-31, which is here: https://publikationen.uni-tuebingen.de/xmlui/handle/10900/48007.

  3. Please allow me to be frivolous.

    I think that having candles in the liturgical colours of the various Advent Sundays, together with an additional white candle to be lit at Christmas (ADVENT wreath??) is a device invented by Church furnishing companies to get us to purchase yet more of their variegated (I’m trying to be kind and avoid the attentions of corporate lawyers) goods.

    Anyway, purple and pink is a truly shocking combination.

    The best Advent wreaths I have seen in churches have been suspended from the ceiling, so that they are out of the way of the Liturgy!

    AG.

      1. Alas, a distinction only in English. In French and all European languages “rose” and its variants are the word for pink.

  4. It makes sense in the home at the table where, if this happens, the family gathers daily to pray and eat together by the light just of the candle(s).

    In church, the symbolism is diluted beyond fruitfulness – I think its an accretion we can happily let fade.

  5. The advent wreath may not have as deep roots as other customs, but it has been received by the faithful and it’s addition is a good example of organic development. It makes the liturgy seem a little less sanitized. People crave unique traditions to mark the passage of time even in a liturgical context. No, the readings and vestments colors are not enough to satisfy this need.

  6. The Advent Wreath seems to have started life in Germany, several hundred years ago. It originated in people’s homes and was a horizontal circle of evergreens,normally placed on a table. This is still found in many German households today. Both the evergreens and the circular shape were symbolic of eternity and of the unending succession of the seasons. The candles were symbols of hope. (The English tradition of hanging a greenery wreath on a front door is a different tradition of pagan origins.) It is to be noted that the colour of the candles was always white/ivory (natural beeswax). From the German household, the tradition migrated to churches. It was brought to Europe and thence to North America by those who fought in the two Great Wars, particularly the second one. The use of purple and pink candles is more recent, dating only from the 1950s. Alongside it, the use of red candles began, derived from the colour of the red ribbon used on front-door wreaths in Victorian times. The use of a 5th white candle to light at Christmas is even more recent, only beginning in the 1970s.

    The variety of locations and mountings increases all the time. Special stands and tables have been used,, as well as hanging a wheel from the roof of the church. Some churches use a slanted candle stand instead of a circular arrangement. In the US in particular, but not exclusively, the entire church becomes the wreath, achieved by having a large candlestick at the four corners of the building, and hanging long green swags of material along the walls between the candlesticks. Thus the entire assembly is “enfolded” within the wreath, which is found to be powerfully symbolic.

    The Book of Blessings (1987) tells us that the blessing may take place during Mass, a celebration of the Word of God, or Evening Prayer (para 1509). Most places seem to do it at weekend Mass.

    Three violet candles and one rose candle are traditionally used (para 1510), but four violet or four white are also permitted. The blessing is done by a priest or a deacon or a lay person (para 1516).

    The wreath should be of sufficient size to be visible to the congregation. It may be suspended from the ceiling or placed on a stand. If placed in the presbyterium, it should not interfere with the celebration of the liturgy, nor should it obscure the altar, lectern or chair (para 1512).

    When the blessing takes place within Mass:

    — on the 1st Sunday of Advent after the General Intercessions (paras 1517-19). I do not know of any place that does this, preferring the beginning of Mass, after the Sign of the Cross and greeting.

    — on tne 2nd-4th Sundays, the candles are lit either before Mass begins or immediately before the opening prayer; no additional rites or prayers are used [i.e. no blessing, just lighting]. Once again, this is routinely ignored, with many places lighting the candles after the Sign of the Cross and greeting, and sometimes blessing the candles again.

    1. The practice of blessing the Advent Wreath after the Intercessions (before the Offertory) is actually relatively common where I live, including at my parish this past weekend. Can’t say I’m a huge fan of it, because it’s a rather awkward bridge between the Liturgies of the Word and Eucharist IMHO. I much prefer front loading it at the beginning of Mass before the Greeting, where if nothing else it serves as an nice introduction into the new liturgical season/new year.

    2. Unlike the Book of Blessings, the (Mexican) Bendicional assigns the blessing of the wreath, if celebrated during Mass, to “after the initial greeting, in place of the Penitential Act” (par. 1241). If we’re going to give liturgical prominence to this seasonal devotion, I think it makes more sense to do so from the outset of the seasonal Mass rather than halfway through.

  7. “it has been received by the faithful”

    How much so, versus the art & environment and or liturgical commission of a parish? That is, how keenly would its absence in church be felt and for how long by the faithful at large?

      1. I am now just a PIP, thank you kindly.

        A former parish of mine for many years used to take great effort to dangle a giant wreath over the central crossing of the pew area of its nave. When a new pastor came in, that went out with the shifting wind, but the change garnered little comment from people not active in liturgical ministry. That’s the trigger of my wondering how much these things really are “received by the faithful”. (Other changes with that shift in wind garnered *much* more negative reaction by comparison, I should note.)

      2. “Received by the faithful”
        We had a large hanging wreath hanging in the body of the church. We’d bless it the first Sunday and then a sacristan/server would come with a long lucifer and attempt to light it.
        And then the wreath would spin and spin and spin. And the poor server/sacristan couldn’t find the wick. And it would spin and spin. Finally someone would grab a chair and the assembly would applaud. Two years of that, and we gave up.
        My point: I think the faithful only misses the entertainment factor and the annual levity of a bunch of liturgists trying to light one candle.

    1. I think I’m with you on this.

      We put up ours this year and no one mentioned the fact that no one had lit the candle on it!

      AG.

  8. When I studied at St Meinrad in days long ago, the wreath hung from the ceiling of the abbey church used vigil candles in glass. The candle was lit at Evening Prayer I for each Sunday of Advent, and burned continuously for the rest of the season. To me this caught nicely the waiting aspect of Advent.

    As for the blessing of the wreath after the homily the first Sunday, Paul Inwood, I’ll let you know there are definitely two parishes that follow that practice, both ones where I am pastor. It does flow more naturally when the parish is used to doing other blessings after the homily throughout the year, though.

  9. It’s never been a distraction in any parish I’ve ever belonged to. Usually the candle is lit at the first Mass of the day and just remains lit for the other Masses. If you went to the first Mass, you got to experience the blessing (for the first Sunday) and the candle lighting, otherwise the wreath is just there. Usually the wreath sits by the ambo and isn’t particularly large (the notion of turning the whole church into an advent wreath is something I never experienced and seems very corny). Unless the parish is spending a lot of money on it or making it into a huge event, I see no harm in it.

    I also grew up with the tradition in my home and continue it to this day. It’s a wonderful home tradition.

  10. The lighting of an extra candle each Saturday evening to mark another week of Advent is a connection with the incremental lighting of candles at Hanukkah and thus, in my opinion, a positive link with Judaism. A German Benedictine monastery where I have been a regular visitor has a wreath suspended from the ceiling of the refectory. That works very well.

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