The Christmas season is a time of numerous traditions and celebrations. We look forward to listening to and singing certain songs; we deck our halls with ornaments and trinkets passed down throughout the years. Some aspects of our holiday festivities have become second nature—we may not remember how or why they got their start in the first place.
For many, one such tradition is the lighting of the candles of the Advent wreath. We’ll explore this practice, its history, and its purpose, and look closely at the most commonly attributed Advent candle meanings. We hope that this exploration will enrich your Christmas season and invite you to draw closer to the one whose birth we celebrate, Christ Jesus.
What is Advent?
Before we turn our attention to the Advent wreath and its various candles, let us first answer a more essential question: what is Advent? Advent is the name given to the season of 24 days leading up to Christmas. The word “Advent” is derived from the Latin word adventus, which means “coming”. The waiting and anticipation undertaken during Advent symbolize not only the waiting for Jesus’ birth but also for his final return.
Within the Church, this period is observed as a season of anticipation and preparation for the coming of Jesus on Christmas. In other words, Advent intentionally sets aside time to pause and thoughtfully reflect on the nativity story and its impact in the midst of a world that seems to rush through the holidays faster and faster each year.
Typically, Advent is celebrated over the four Sundays leading up to Christmas, marked by a reading from Scripture and a devotional or reflection. Many also engage with daily devotionals in the days between each of the four Sundays in order to even more thoroughly orient themselves towards the birth of Jesus.
Advent Wreaths and How to Use Them
For those observing the season of Advent, the Advent wreath is often at the heart of the practice. An Advent wreath—a round ring typically encircled with evergreen boughs and holding four (or five) candles—functions as a kind of calendar or watch, marking each Sunday leading up to Christmas. On each Sunday, a new candle is lit (along with those lit in preceding weeks), with each candle commemorating a different element or aspect of the Christmas story.
Different denominations and faith traditions have their own customary colors and meanings for the candles. In Lutheran traditions, blues are used; other protestant denominations use red. The most ubiquitous color scheme features three purple candles and one pink candle. Additionally, the Advent wreath often features a fifth white candle placed in the center, to be lit on Christmas Eve itself.
The Five Candles
With the purpose and practice of Advent fresh in our minds, we turn our attention to each of the Advent candles, what they mean and which passages from Scripture typically go alongside them. Much the variation in how the candles are colored, there is are a number of meanings applied to each candle. Here we will explore some of the most common meanings and names commemorated throughout the season of Advent.
Often called the Hope candle, the first candle of Advent represents the hope born out of all that God has done and will do for humanity. In some traditions, hope is commemorated by looking ahead to the day when Jesus will come again. For others, hope is best embraced by looking back—by reflecting on all the promises God has kept and all of the ways God has protected and preserved the world. For this reason, the first candle is also known as the Prophet’s candle, as it invites us to celebrate the words of hope and provision prophesied by those like Isaiah.
For the first week of Advent, it is common to read Scripture passages such as Isaiah 9:6-7 (“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace...”) or New Testament verses such as Matthew 1:22, which refer Jesus as the fulfillment of the prophet’s words.
The second Advent candle is frequently called the Peace candle or the Bethlehem candle. Reflecting on the peace promised by Christ’s birth and the faithfulness of those who played a part in the Christmas story—from Joseph and Mary, to Zechariah and Elizabeth, to John the Baptist preparing the way for the Lord. In lighting this candle, we celebrate the restoration of creation and wonder of God’s Shalom lived out here on earth. We honor the examples set for us by our sisters and brothers in God who trusted the Lord and acted out of faith to help spread the peace of Jesus to all.
In this spirit, the second candle is typically accompanied by readings of John 3:16, of the arrival of Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem, or of the birth of John the Baptist. All of these readings highlight the faithfulness of God and encourage us to embrace Christ’s promised peace now.
The third Advent candle is referred to as the Joy candle or the Shepherd’s candle. In those traditions that have three purple candles and one pink, this third candle is designated as the pink candle. The third week of Advent celebrates the joy of Christmas and, not surprisingly, often focuses on the declaration of Jesus’ birth by the angels to the shepherds. Their words of rejoicing, calling us to give “glory to God in the highest”, stir up our souls to give thanks for the miracle of Christmas. Likewise, the immediate reaction and response of the shepherds highlight the Christmas story as something active and dynamic; the miracle of Jesus moves us.
In addition to the Luke 2 passage about the angels, some traditions take this third Sunday to reflect upon the figure of Mary and her unique role throughout the Christmas story. Reading Mary’s song of joy (also known as the Magnificat), this approach to the third Advent candle invites us to sit with Mary as she ponders the mystery and wonder of her son’s birth. When she declares that her soul is filled with joy, we empathize lift up our voices in harmony with her song.
The candle for the fourth Sunday of Advent is the Love candle. Love is at the very core of the Christmas story—Mary’s love for her son, Zechariah and Elizabeth’s love for each other and for John, the love and respect of the Magi and Shepherds for Jesus, and God’s love for all the world. Also known as the Angel’s candle, the fourth candle of Advent picks up where the Shepherd’s candle often leaves off—with the angel’s declaration of the Good News of love.
Lastly, there is the fifth a final candle, the Christ candle. While not all Advent wreaths include this additional candle, the center white candle is lit on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, celebrating the arrival of that which we have been anticipating. Jesus is born and our season of waiting is at an end. With the lighting of the Christ candle, we remember the Light which shines in the darkness—the source of our hope, champion for peace, reason for our joy, and giver of love.
Taking part in the season of Advent enables one to walk through the Christmas season with fresh eyes. We reflect on the miracle of Christmas each day and remind ourselves that the birth of Jesus has real and lasting upon all of creation.
The tradition of Advent wreaths helps us to visualize this journey to the manger more clearly and invites us to await Jesus with hope anticipation. Learn more about the story of Jesus with the Gospels from Alabaster.