On the heels of Thanksgiving comes the first Sunday in the Advent season whether we are ready to release autumn décor or not. Some years an extra week of November follows. Not this year. Sunday, December 1st is the day.
Pre-Christian Germanic peoples had used wreaths with lit candles during dark December days as a way of marking the time until the New Year, and Scandinavians placed candles around a wood wheel and offered prayers to the “god of light” to turn the wheel of earth back to the sun.
The Christian tradition of placing an Advent wreath with candles in the church chancel began sometime in the Middle Ages — probably about 1600 — as part of spiritual preparation for Christmas. Wreath symbolism points to the eternal Christ as “the Light that came into the world” to dispel the darkness of sin and to radiate the truth and love of God (cf. John 3:19-21).
Evergreens — usually mountain laurel and pine and spruce, holly and yew — are arranged in a circle without beginning or ending to represent eternal and everlasting life. Four purple candles represent the four weeks of Advent, a prayerful and penitential season imbued with quiet joy. Some liturgical traditions celebrate Gaudete Sunday with a pink candle on the third Sunday of Advent instead of a purple one.
Each Sunday, one candle is lighted, progressively, until all four are lit on the fourth Sunday. At Christmas, four white candles replace the colored ones, and a white candle added in the center. All five candles are lighted on Christmas Eve and throughout the Christmas season until Epiphany, indeed a magical time of holy expectation.
A corresponding Advent Wreath in the home is most appropriately lit at dinner with a special prayer, something like this:
O God, by whose word all things are sanctified, pour forth Thy blessing upon this wreath. Grant that all who use it may prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ, and may receive from Thee abundant graces. Through Him who lives and reigns forever. Amen.
Someone lights the first candle, and the blessing for the meal is recited.
For subsequent weeks, the prayer before the blessing goes something like this:
O Lord, stir up our hearts that we may prepare for Thy Only begotten Son, that through His coming we may be made worthy to serve Thee with pure minds . . .
. . . and two candles are lit, and so on. I promise you that this quiet observance at the dinner hour will enhance your season and calm your nerves in the excitement that shopping and wrapping gifts, planning special meals, baking, sending cards brings every December.