Q. What are the historical origins of the Advent wreath? Some say it has pagan or Protestant beginnings.
A. The historical origins of the Advent wreath are somewhat confusing, in part because the wreath has several historical antecedents that aren’t exactly like the wreaths we use today.
We have historical evidence that in ancient times, pagan Germanic peoples crafted wreathes with lit candles during the dark, cold days of Winter as a sign of hope in the coming Spring. In Scandinavia, lighted candles were placed around a wheel with prayers to the god of light to turn the “wheel of the earth” back toward the sun so that the hours of daylight would lengthen and warm the earth again.
In the Middle Ages, European Catholics adapted this ancient custom of wreaths with candles for the Advent season. But our contemporary Advent wreath, which “counts down” the weeks till Christmas by the successive lighting of candles, finds its immediate predecessor in the 1839 creation of Johann Hinrich Wichern (1808–1881), a German Lutheran pastor and missionary to the urban poor of Hamburg.
When children at his mission school kept asking every day whether Christmas had arrived, Wichern crafted a large wooden ring out of an old cartwheel, adding twenty small red candles and four large white candles. Throughout Advent, each weekday a small candle was lit, and each Sunday a large candle. In this way, the children could keep track of how many days remained until Christmas.
German Lutheran churches began adopting Wichern’s invention, adding evergreen branches and simplifying the custom to include only four candles, one for each Sunday. By the 1920s the practice had spread to German Catholic homes as well. German immigrants, both Lutheran and Catholic, brought the Advent tradition to the United States. Because Catholic liturgical vestments for Advent are colored violet, and rose-colored on Gaudete Sunday, Catholics used violet and rose candles instead of red and white.
In short, then, we might say that pagan, Catholic, and Protestant elements have all merged to form the contemporary Advent wreath we see in Catholic homes and churches today.