Friday, November 27, 2020

History of the Advent Wreath

The following is an excerpt of Richard Thomas’ weekly email to the “choir”.  He expounds on the history of the Advent wreath.


From: Richard Thomas <>
Sent: Thursday, November 26, 2020 1:37 AM

Hi Choir, ….

On Sunday, Rev. Baum will light the first candle of Advent, which this year is designated the Candle of Hope.

        Last January, I donated a new little Advent wreath and fourteen purple Advent candles, 12” long, so we would be ready for Advent 2020, but I guess we’ll start using them in 2021 instead.

        When Old South Haven began doing Advent candles (about thirty years ago, I think), we initially did:

The Prophets’ Candle, The Bethlehem Candle, The Shepherds’ Candle, The Angels’ Candle, and, on Christmas Eve, Christ’s Candle.

        Then we switched to “Hope, Faith, Love, and Peace.” 

        Rev. Philipp always did “Hope, Love, Joy, Peace” and changed the candles from purple to blue. His four themes were faithless while the ones we had used before were joyless.

        (We initially had four purple candles, I don’t recall whether it was Rev. Philipp or Rev. Baum who introduced the pink candle to our Advent rituals.  I initially didn’t much care for the pink candle—aesthetically—it destroyed the symmetry, but I’ve grown used to it, much as one becomes used to most things when exposed to it long enough.)

        The use of an Advent wreath in liturgical worship is a fairly recent development, so there are still many different practices.

        The situation is similar to when many gospels and writings appeared in the early Christian church.  There were disputes about what should be included in the New Testament canon and what should be rejected.  (I wish they had kept the Gospel of Thomas.) 

        The Christians of eastern Syria never did get around to accepting the Book of Revelation in their New Testament – in the Peshitta Bible.  (It was probably a wise decision.  If the Council of Carthage, which met in 397 A.D., had rejected it as well, we wouldn’t have to put up with all those bumper stickers about “The Rapture” or that “Left Behind” series by Tim LaHaye.)

        A consensus does appear to be developing regarding the candles of the Advent wreath.

        Even though the song the choir sings, “Candles of Advent,” was written in 1997 and is by a Presbyterian, the order of the candles in the song is different from what is the usual order today.

        Here is some research I have done on Advent wreaths and the assigning of a theme to each candle.

        The designation of

                                1. Hope

                                2. Peace

                                3. Joy

                                4. Love,

in that order, for names of the Advent candles (or the themes of the Sundays of Advent) is, it appears, a rather recent development in church history.

        As I was interested in the names of the Advent candles and their sequence, I looked at many books and religious publications that mention Advent candles, and I’ve looked at articles in many different newspapers published in the United States since the 1940s (which often reported on what was happening in the churches, including whether Advent candles were used in the worship services and also, sometimes, even the theme assigned to an Advent Sunday).

        Scandinavian and northern European countries (Germany, Denmark, etc.) had a custom of making wreaths of evergreen with candles during the dark days of December, but these had no Christian meaning, and many believe the practice even pre-dated the arrival of Christianity.

        The European Lutherans were the first to adapt this symbol as a home decoration and for family devotional use. These home wreaths usually had four red candles, and at Sunday supper, a member of the family would light one the first week, another family member would light two on the following Sunday, then three, etc., symbolizing a movement from darkness to light as Christmas day approached.

        A recent Pope still had an Advent wreath of four red candles (and no center candle):

        The Advent wreath began its appearance as a decorative item in American Lutheran and Catholic churches around 1940.

        The first use of an Advent wreath I was able to find in an American publication was in the Deaconess Annals of the Lutheran Deaconess Motherhouse of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, published in 1937, where it was reported that the sisters had decorated their dining room with an Advent Wreath and that on the First Advent Sunday it appeared “with its solitary candle to symbolize the first Advent promise.”  This, however, still seems to be a “home use” of the wreath rather than a liturgical use during worship.

        The first mention of an Advent wreath in a church appears in a description of a practice of the monks of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, in 1941, but that wreath was suspended, and therefore very much unlike its liturgical use today.

        An article in the Kansas City Star, published on 23 Dec 1951, says Immanuel Lutheran Church had an Advent Wreath in Kansas City in 1951. All four candles in its wreath were red.  (The article calls the Advent wreath, “a Swedish rite.”) Moreover, there is some sort of ceremony involved in “installing the candles.”

        A liturgical use during public worship also appears in an American Catholic publication issued in 1955

        An article in the Portland Oregonian (Dec. 1, 1962) describes the history of the wreath in the Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Portland.  The congregation, founded as a Norwegian congregation, had sponsored a German couple, Klaus and Helga Hoenisch, who, in 1956, had an Advent wreath in their home.  Their former pastor saw it and asked for one for his own family.  Then in 1957, an Advent Wreath was “hung above the altar.”

        From an article in the Rockford Morning Star (Rockford, Illinois), Dec. 14, 1957, it is established that Lutheran churches had incorporated a lighting ceremony into their December worship services:



        From this next article published on 27 Nov 1958 about a service at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Greenfield, Massachusetts, it appears that the original liturgical use didn’t ascribe a theme to any of the candles, the focus was instead on the increasing light as the day of the birth of the Christ child approached.

        All the candles were white.

From: Springfield Union (Springfield, MA), Nov. 27, 1958.

St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Greenfield, Massachusetts:


        So use of an Advent Wreath in American Christian worship is a fairly new idea, and took place sometime after the birth of a significant number of the members of our own congregation.

        When the liturgical use began, the emphasis was on going from darkness to light, so, each week another candle was lit to symbolize this movement.  That was the emphasis rather than an emphasis on a particular theme as a focus of a particular Sunday of Advent.

        The earliest evidence I’ve found of a different theme being associated with each candle of Advent appears in 1961.

        An article in the Beaumont (Texas) Journal on Saturday, 09 Dec 1961, describes the use of Advent wreaths at St. John’s Lutheran Church and at the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church. (See attached.)

        These two Lutheran churches located in the same Texas city had different practices regarding the Advent wreath in 1961.

        The wreath at St. John’s Lutheran used three purple candles and a fourth pink or rose candle for the fourth Sunday of Advent.  The article says “Sometimes a fifth candle, often white, is added to the ring on Christmas Eve.”

        At the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Beaumont, Texas, in 1961, all four candles of Advent were to be white, and the fifth candle in the center was red.

        There were already themes assigned to the candles, but the two Lutheran pastors not only had different colors for their candles, they had different themes as well.

        For St. John’s Lutheran, the theme of the first candle isn’t stated, but the remaining themes were: “Bethlehem, City of the Coming King,” “John, the Herald of Christ,” and “His Name is Wonderful.”

        The themes of the candles at the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church were:

Prophecy Candle—opening up the period of waiting, white candle

Bethlehem Candle—symbolic of preparation to receive and cradle the Christ Child, white candle

Shepherds’ Candle—signifying the act of sharing Christ, white candle, and

Angels’ Candle—the candle of love and final coming, white candle

Christ Candle—the fifth candle placed in the center and lighted on Christmas Eve.  That candle was red.


        Presbyterian Use. By 1962, both liturgical and “nonliturgical” churches, were beginning to show an interest in “observing the season of Advent,” according to an article in the Dallas Morning News (Dec. 6, 1962).  [See attached.]

        The description is of a wreath with four red candles, and, more importantly, the candles have names.  They are the same names as used at the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Beaumont, Texas, the previous year. No center candle is mentioned.  None of the candles are pink.

        The person giving the description was Dr. Thomas A. Fry of the Dallas First Presbyterian Church.  The candle lighting was being done at special services on Thursdays. It hadn’t been incorporated into the main worship services yet.  (I don’t know why Dr. Fry chose Thursdays.  In 1962, Christmas fell on a Tuesday.)

        These candle themes are the same themes that would later be used at Old South Haven.  I don’t know when the first use occurred at Old South Haven, as my digital copies of the bulletins begin in 1988. In any case, Old South Haven has included a candle-lighting ceremony in its Advent worship since at least December 1988.  For many years, all four Advent candles were purple. For a while, Rev. Baum particularly liked “The Prophets Candle, The Bethlehem Candle, The Shepherds’ Candle, The Angels’ Candle” sequence, but she used others also.

      As with any new liturgical practice, there is initially innovation and variation.  The theme each candle represents, their colors, and the sequence of the themes was in a high state of flux and variation for many decades.

        I found the following ten variations of themes and sequences:








The Prophets'

The Patriarchs










The Way


John the Baptist








John the Baptist










The Virgin Mary




Christmas Eve or Day

The Christ

The Christ


There are probably other sequences, as I didn’t try to find them all.


        A set of Advent candles with a pink candle used to be rare at the major Protestant supply houses, but they’ve all had them for the last couple of decades.

        However, the use of a pink candle in an Advent wreath in home wreaths appears in an Associated Press “Newsfeature” release on Friday, 29 Nov 1957, “Tradition of Holy Wreath Revived.” The AP feature article instructed families on how to make an Advent wreath: “Select three purple, one pink candle . . .”  The name of the author of the feature isn’t given, much less her or his religious affiliation.

        Liturgical use of a pink candle in an Advent wreath appeared soon after.

        When the pink candle began to be used in churches, it was sometimes used on the third Sunday and sometimes on the fourth Sunday. 

        Many Lutheran and Unitarian Universalist churches still assign “Joy” (and the pink candle) to the fourth Sunday.

        In Bread for the Journey: Resources for Worship (1981), Ruth C. Duck gives “Joy” as the theme of the Fourth Sunday of Advent (p. 12).  Dr. Duck is Professor of Worship at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois.  Her sequence is “Hope, Peace, Love, Joy.”

        An early reference to the words “hope, joy, peace, and love” in association with an Advent wreath appears in Programs for Adventure and Christmas (1980) in an article entitled “An Advent Worship Suggestion for Youth” by Franklin Nelson.  He writes “Option one: For each of the themes in the worship you may want to light a candle.  Option two: Or you may want to bring in banners of Hope, Joy, Peace, Love.  Option three: Or you might want to unscramble . . .” 

        The four words weren’t explicitly stated to be the “names” of the Advent candles.  Also, the words represented four themes of a single worship service, but we can see an association beginning to develop between these four words and Advent candles.

        Later, in 1993, Ray Burton Kitchens wrote: “The violet candles symbolize Faith, Hope, and Love.  The rose colored candle symbolizes Joy.”  So in 1993, “Faith” was a theme rather than “Peace” in that church.  [Where There’s Hope: A History of the Isle of Hope Baptist Church, Savannah, Georgia, 1952-1992, (published 1993), p. 382.]

        A September 1993 article on Reformed Worship gave two possibilities for the themes of each Advent Sunday:

                Faithfulness  /  Hope  /  Joy  /  Love

or    Prophets  /  Angels  /  Shepherds  /  Magi  .

(See: )

        It takes a few decades, at least, before one variant can win out over others and become the established form (which people will later call “traditional”).

        The choir has had to change the words of the “Candles of Advent” anthem from which we sing a few measures at the time of the lighting of the Advent candle during the worship service.

        The Old South Haven choir has been singing that anthem since at least 2003.  The four candles in “Candles of Advent” are:

                                1. Hope

                                2. Faith

                                3. Love

                                4. Peace

So that anthem’s set of Advent candles is “joyless,” but the set of four themes now being used is “faithless.” The order is different too, except for the Hope candle.

        The words of “Candles of Advent” are by Don Besig, and the anthem was published in 1997.  Don Besig is a member of the Perinton Presbyterian Church in Fairport, New York, (western New York). “Candles of Advent,” words by Don Besig, sung by the Folk Choir of King of Kings Lutheran Church

        If the names of the Advent candles and their sequence had been well-settled in 1997, Don Besig would surely have used those names in his anthem. (Being a Presbyterian, this is especially true, as Don Besig would certainly have wished to do things decently and in order. J Also, he would have, no doubt, attempted to use the themes and sequence he understood to be used by most congregations, as in so doing, he would be able to sell more copies of his anthem.)

        The choir acquired a new Advent-candle anthem recently (published in 2012), which has the same names as now used, but in a different sequence:

                                1. Hope

                                2. Love

                                3. Joy

                                4. Peace

That anthem is “Light the Advent Candles” with words by Mark Clark.

        For at least ten Advent seasons, from 1988 through 1997, the Old South Haven Church lit the following candles:

                                1. Prophets’ candle

                                2. Bethlehem candle

                                3. Shepherds’ candle

                                4. Angels’ candle

On the second Sunday of Advent in 1997 (Dec. 7), John and I lit the Bethlehem candle.  (I think John read the material, and I lighted the candle.)

        It is true that the names Expectation, Faith, and Purity have lost much of their popularity.  It is also true that the use of the names “Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love” appear to have surpassed the use of other names.  So one might well say, those names are the ones that are now “commonly” chosen.

        The United Methodist Church web site, in 2016, did still state the following:

“Others consider the lighting of the first candle to symbolize expectation, while the second symbolizes hope, the third joy and the fourth purity.”


Therefore, we can conclude that for the Methodists, the set of themes of

                                Expectation  /  Hope  /  Joy  /  Purity

was still a viable set  of alternative themes in 2016.

        The practice of having an Advent wreath has now even reached the Eastern Orthodox churches, but because of the longer Advent period, their wreath requires six candles instead of five.

        It is still a choice which set of themes one uses.  There are other sets, they have been used for many years, and they are still being used today.  Liturgical resources are still available for most of the sets of four themes, so there is nothing to prevent any of them from regaining their popularity and supplanting the set currently favored, though that is probably unlikely.  I suppose someone might even come up with a new set of four themes, which, coupled with an engaging anthem and the proper resources and marketing, might overtake the current leader.

        The candles pictured in commercially-available bulletin covers still appear in many different colors, but it is now difficult to find Advent bulletins without one of the candles being pink, and, despite what is asserted in the following quote, that candle is almost always shown as lit on the cover for the Third Sunday of Advent.


The Colors of Advent

                In many churches the third Sunday remains the Sunday of Joy marked by pink or rose. However, most Protestant churches now use blue to distinguish the Season of Advent from Lent. Royal Blue is sometimes used as a symbol of royalty. Some churches use Bright Blue to symbolize the night sky, the anticipation of the impending announcement of the King’s coming, or to symbolize the waters of Genesis 1, the beginning of a new creation. Some churches, including some Catholic churches, use blue violet to preserve the traditional use of purple while providing a visual distinction between the purple or red violet of Lent.

                With the shift to blue for Advent in most non-Catholic churches, there is also a tendency to move pink to the Fourth Sunday of Advent.  It still remains associated with Joy, but is increasingly used as the climax of the Advent Season on the last Sunday before Christmas

        The future is difficult to predict. It is clear, however, that while the four themes of “Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love” may have become more common, as far as a church traditions go, it has all happened relatively recently.

        We live in exciting times—when a new church tradition is being adapted and incorporated into Advent worship.  I wonder what other church traditions are in a process of being established of which we are scarcely aware.


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