The Advent wreath is another Christian liturgical tradition that is not as old as it might seem. Although northern European Christians probably used wreaths of greenery and candles as winter decorations during the middle ages – having inherited the practice from their pre-Christian ancestors – the modern advent wreath dates to 19th century Germany and a Lutheran pastor named Johann Hinrich Wichern.
Wichern ran a residential ministry for poor boys In Hamburg. As Christmas approached, the story goes, the boys constantly asked Wichern when it would arrive. In 1839, the pastor created a multi-candled wreath for the boys to use to count down to Christmas. There were small candles for each day, and a large candle for each Sunday. The practice spread to other Lutheran churches, although the large number of candles proved impractical. Soon, the small candles disappeared from the wreath; only the Sunday candles remained. Catholics in Germany also adopted the wreath for their use, and in the 1930s the practice spread to the United States.
The Advent wreath’s history explains the wide variety of Advent wreath liturgies. In Lighting of the Advent Candles, I wrote:
What do the Advent candles mean? Well, they mean whatever we want them to mean. You’ll find that every Advent ritual is different. The candles and the wreath seem to be the only constant – more or less. Even the colors of the candles sometimes vary.
You will find one Advent wreath liturgy that I have used from time to time here.