An Advent Wreath is composed of a circular wreath with four candles which are placed an equal distance apart. Normally the wreath is decorated with evergreen branches, but in the interest of fire safety, it has become increasingly common to use artificial greens. The Advent Wreath normally is placed in a prominent location in church, often in the sanctuary, but never in a location that would obstruct the view of the altar, lectern, or presider’s chair. At home the two most common locations are the center of the dinner table or on a table in the family room.
Three of the candles, the ones for the First, Second and Fourth weeks, are violet, while the candle for the Third Week is rose. Violet symbolizes sorrow for sin and serves as a reminder to prepare for Christmas through the admission, confession, and absolution of sin during Advent, and to be in the state of grace, ready to welcome the Christ when he comes. The rose candle is lit on the Third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, and it represents joy that Advent is more than half over and that Christmas is so near.
The Advent Wreath has additional symbolism. The wreath is a circle, and because it has no beginning or end, it signifies God’s eternal love that is without beginning or end, and because of this immeasurable love, God sent his only begotten Son born on the first Christmas (Jn 3:16). The circular shape also is a symbol of eternal life. Jesus was born to die on the Cross, open the Gates of Heaven, redeem sinners, and offer the gift of salvation. The constant color of the evergreen branches represents eternity.
One candle is lit per week. The first candle represents hope; the second, faith; the third, joy; and the fourth, peace. The first candle is lit on the First Sunday of Advent, and the same candle is relit each weekday for the remainder of the first week. Then, on the Second Sunday, a second candle is added, and the first and second candles are both relit the rest of the week. After the first week, in church the candles are lit before Mass or before the Collect. When the candles are lit outside of church, it is customary to offer a prayer at candle-lighting time, often when everyone is gathered around the table before the evening meal. The Collect from the Mass of the particular Sunday is recommended, and it may be accompanied by a seasonal hymn or Scripture reading. In some localities there is a tradition regarding the person in the family who is to light the candle: the youngest child the first week, the oldest child the second, the mother the third, and the father the fourth.
The primary symbol of the Advent Wreath is the candlelight. December is a month of increasing darkness, a season when the days get shorter as the winter solstice approaches on December 21 or 22, the shortest, darkest day of the year. Spiritually, darkness is associated with sin, evil, the absence of God, and ignorance.
Jesus is the light of the world (Jn 8:12; 12:46), “the light of the human race” (Jn 1:4). As the darkness outside deepens, more candles are lit to crowd out the darkness, and then on Christmas, one of the shortest days of the year, during the night watch (Lk 2:8) when the darkness is intense, Jesus, the Light of the World, was born, “the glory of the Lord shone (Lk 2:9), “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not [and will not] overcome it” (Jn 1:5). The light reflects the splendor of Christ, his victory over sin, and his promise to bring salvation.
It is customary to bless the Advent Wreath on the First Sunday of Advent. For a wreath in church, the blessing usually is offered at Mass after the homily, but it also may be blessed during Evening Prayer on Saturday. The blessing is offered by a priest, but it may be offered by a deacon, or by a lay person during a Word Service. Three options are provided in the Book of Blessings, Nos. 1517 to 1540. A wreath at home may also be blessed, often by one of the adults, and another option is provided in Catholic Household Blessings and Prayers, pages 110-112.