Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Light Your Way to Christmas

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Light Your Way to Christmas

Article excerpt

Even though I grew up catholic in the 1950s and '60s, I was only remotely familiar with the custom of the Advent wreath. One or two years during my childhood I remember my mother making an Advent wreath and placing it on our dining room table -- which was used only for special occasions -- and explaining it to me and my brothers and sisters. However, it just didn't catch on in my family.

When I was in college, students put up an Advent wreath in the seminary chapel, sometimes placing it on a table in the sanctuary or, stretching the wreath concept, laying it out across the sanctuary in a straight line in front of the altar. But it wasn't until I went to St. Meinrad School of Theology in Indiana and saw a huge wheel of fire suspended from the ceiling by the monks in St. Meinrad Archabbey Church that I understood the importance of the tradition.

The custom of making an Advent wreath is both new -- in terms of almost 2,000 years of church history -- and old, having been started in eastern Germany by Lutherans a few hundred years ago. The wreath's ancestors were most likely the religious fires kindled during late November and early December to brighten up the darkness of the short days of the year and to call back the sun's warmth and power to provide food and life.

By the 16th century, Christians had found a way to baptize the "old ways" and apply them directly to the season of Advent. Instead of lighting Yule fires in their hearths, four candles, suspended in a chandelier and representing the four Sundays of the Advent season, were kindled successively to mark simultaneously the passing of the weeks, the lighting of the darkness, and the preparation for the birth of the unconquerable Son. Around the four candles, traditionally three purple (for the first, second, and fourth Sundays) and one pink (for the third Sunday) -- the same colors as the Mass vestments -- was entwined a circle of evergreen, signifying the eternal life of God who sent the victorious light, Jesus, into the world.

Once the Advent wreath was firmly established in the home, it was only a matter of time until it made it into the home of the community -- the church building. As a young priest I had large Advent wreaths made for the parishes in which I served. …

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