In 1839, a Lutheran minister working at a children’s mission in Germany created a wreath out of the wheel of a cart. The minister placed 20 small red candles on the outer ring of the wheel and four larger white candles inside the ring, lighting the red candles on weekdays and the four white candles on Sundays as a way for the children to countdown the days until Christmas.
The wreath and candles are full of symbolism tied to the Christmas season. The wreath itself, which is made of various evergreens, signifies continuous life. The circle of the wreath, which has no beginning or end, symbolizes the eternity of God, the immortality of the soul, and the everlasting life we find in Christ. Tradition even states that the four candles, representing the four weeks of Advent, each stand for 1,000 years to total the 4,000 years from the time of Adam to the birth of the Messiah.
The candles also have their own special significance.
The four candles represent the four weeks of Advent, and one candle is lit each Sunday. Three of the candles are purple because the colour violet is a liturgical colour that signifies a time of prayer, penance, and sacrifice.
The first candle, which is purple, symbolizes hope. It is sometimes called the “Prophecy Candle” in remembrance of the prophets, especially Isaiah, who foretold the birth of Christ. It represents the expectation felt in anticipation of the coming Messiah.
The second candle, also purple, represents faith. It is called the “Bethlehem Candle” as a reminder of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem.
The third candle is rose and symbolizes joy. It is called the “Shepard’s Candle,” and is rose because rose is a liturgical colour for joy. The third Sunday of Advent is Gaudete Sunday and is meant to remind us of the joy that the world experienced at the birth of Jesus, as well as the joy that the faithful have reached the midpoint of Advent.
On the fourth week of Advent, we light the final purple candle to mark the final week of prayer and penance as we wait for the birth of our Saviour. This final candle, the “Angel’s Candle,” symbolizes peace. It reminds us of the message of the angels: “Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men.”
The white candle is placed in the middle of the wreath and lit on Christmas Eve. This candle is called the “Christ Candle” and represents the life of Christ. The colour white is for purity—because Christ is our sinless, pure Saviour.