On the surprising origins of the advent wreath

Sunday night we had our church carol service, with considerably more candles than any Scottish Baptist of a previous generation would have approved of outside of a power cut. Front and centre was our advent wreath, four red candles now of differing heights burning, a central larger candle waiting until Christmas morning to be lit.

It was a good service; later that evening, whilst certain other members of the family were watching The Apprentice final, I noticed some tweets about the origins of advent wreaths. The Anglican mission society US (once USPG) had tweeted a picture of a pink candle alight, and linked it with the theme of remembering Mary on the fourth Sunday of advent; others had responded querying the link and suggesting that the pink (sic, ‘rose’) candle properly belongs to the third Sunday, and the celebration of Gaudete Sunday, when in Roman tradition rose vestments are worn. Which was the original tradition, and when did it start? asked Julie Gittoes, residentiary canon at Guildford Cathedral.

It struck me as an interesting question, certainly more interesting than a business tycoon being gratuitously rude to sycophantic idiots. Plenty of internet sites – and plenty of books, I have since discovered – talk about the ‘ancient custom’, some proposing pre-Christian pagan origins. There was nothing concrete, though, and in my experience claims about pagan origins of Christian customs unravel fairly quickly more often than not.

One of the joys of a modern university library is how much material is electronic, and so available from home late on Sunday night. I turned up a fascinating paper by Mary Jane Haemig, ‘The Origin and Spread of the Advent Wreath’ (Lutheran Quarterly, XIX (2005), pp. 332-343).

Haemig proposes a startlingly specific origin for the tradition: Johann Heinrich Wichern, head of the Rauhe Haus, a Hamburg city mission, created the first advent candle arrangement (not yet a wreath) in 1839, with the greenery added in 1860. This is all documented in D. Sattler (ed.) Der Adventkranz und seine Geschichte (Hamburg, 1997), and it is clear that Wichern believed he was doing something new.

Haemig points also to research done for the ‘Atlas der deutschen Volkskunde’ around 1930, which demonstrated that advent wreaths were largely confined to Protestants at that time, and were much stronger amongst the upper classes. This makes it more likely that Wichern’s innovation, or at least some similar Lutheran invention, is the origin of the tradition: an ancient tradition would presumably have been remembered by Catholic families not just Protestant ones. The Lexicon fuer Theologie und Kirche (a Roman Catholic publication) affirms the origin of the wreath amongst Protestants, but notes its adoption by Catholics after 1945.

Haemig goes on to look at the arrival of the wreath in the USA, finding it proposed as something new in the Lutheran Standard magazine in 1939. She suggests that the wreath moves from home to church sanctuary in the late 1950s, and then discusses the colours and significance of the candles, which are clearly not fixed. Her evidence suggests two things: an assimilation to liturgical colours, and an identification of the candles with the lectionary themes of the four advent Sundays.

The first of these led to the introduction of the rose/pink candle for Gaudete amongst the purple/violet set; the second to the identification of the fourth candle with Mary. The last piece of the journey is not hard to trace: confronted with an odd pink candle, and not knowing the tradition of rose vestments for Gaudete, and inculturated with the modern obsession that pink is somehow feminine, moving the rose candle from Advent 3 to Advent 4 and linking it with Mary is an obvious move.

When and how did this German/US custom reach the UK? Very recently would seem to be the answer. Google ngram can find no use of ‘advent wreath’ in its British English corpus before 1955, and I suspect (from poking around the data a little) that the early incidences are mostly down to US books being misidentified as from the UK in the Google dataset. 1973 looks like the year we really first started talking about advent wreaths over here, at least in print. (In the US dataset the big jump is in 1939, which fits with Haewig’s data above.)

Anne Peat, who had been a part of the Twitter conversation, confirms that the 1980 Alternative Service Book of the Church of England makes no mention of advent wreaths (the ECUSA 1940 Book of Common Prayer does, under ‘Additional Directions’ for Morning and Evening Prayer). Finally, Paula Gooder offered a recalled comment from Michael Perham, the former Bishop of Gloucester, who wrote on liturgical customs, to the effect that ‘the Advent wreath dates to the 1950s coming over from Scandinavia via Blue Peter!’ (For non-UK readers, Blue Peter is a very long-running children’s TV show.)

Given the data above, the Scandinavian link seems plausible, fitting with the Lutheran origins of the custom; those of us of a certain age will remember John Noakes wrapping fire-resistant tinsel around wire coathangers… And the dates from the ngram database fit pretty well with Blue Peter in  the 1970s being the key populariser of the custom. I am not sure how many other liturgical innovations can be laid at the door of kids TV; this may be unique…

 

Two take homes from all this: 1. the pink candle isn’t, it’s rose, and it has nothing to do with Mary; 2. next year we need a black and white candle to be lit in memory of Shep.

 

6 Comments

  1. Doug Chaplin
    Dec 21, 2015

    Thanks for sharing that research. I had no idea the origins were that recent, or that Protestant. The idea of assimilating the candles to liturgical colours makes a lot of sense. Do you know if Wichern had a set of themes he used? And did the patriarchs, prophets, John the Baptizer, the BVM group emerge after the wreath crossed the Catholic boundary? I’ve noted a number of recent (US and school) wreaths that take Hope, Joy, Peace and Love as the themes, and rather assumed this was a dumbing down of a salvation narrative to less explicitly religious themes, but in the light of what you say, perhaps not.

    • steve
      Dec 22, 2015

      Hi Doug, thanks for stopping by. I’m going only on Haemig’s research here, so cannot claim to be exhaustive. She quotes a 1958 text as naming the candles for prophecy, Bethlehem, the shepherds, and the angels. She also offers Laurence Stookey, Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church (Nashville, 1996), suggesting that the increasing light is the basic point, and commenting on the ‘unhappy’ addition of ‘another layer of symbolism’ mentioning both characters in the Christmas story and abstract virtues like those you mention (although he has faith, hope, love, and joy)
      It seems to me that an assimilation of four candles to the three theological virtues is never going to work too well, and that this is probably a bad way to go!
      The identification with particular aspects of the Christmas story looks like it flows naturally from the lectionary, which is not merely Catholic, so I suppose it happened indifferently (or perhaps particularly in mainline protestant churches which were experiencing the C20th liturgical revival and so trying to resymbolise their practices?)

  2. Anne Peat
    Dec 22, 2015

    Although the ASB has no mention of an Advent Wreath, the first of the ‘supplementary’ volumes to the ASB 1980, ‘The Promise of his Glory’ does. Published in 1990, it talks about the Advent wreath in the section ‘For Church and Home’. That fits with the origins of this custom identified by Haemig being in a domestic setting. The Promise of his Glory talks about 4 red or blue candles in a ring around a white or gold candle. No purple, and no rose pink candles. It suggests points in the service where the candles may be lit each Sunday, and suggests all the candles remain alight during the whole Christmas season. It acknowledges that there are several traditions about the meaning of each candle, but says the scheme that accords best with the theme of the proposed lectionary is 1. The Patriarchs. 2. The Prophets. 3. John the Baptist 4. The Virgin Mary 5.(Christmas) The Christ.

    I remember the Blue Peter Advent Wreath. We’ve still got one among our Christmas decorations, but without candles!

    The Advent Wreath was unknown in the churches I attended as a child and young adult. I was introduced to the custom when our liberal Catholic Anglican Church started to share a building with a Methodist congregation in 1980, who brought their wreath, with 4 red and one white candles. The liturgy we used reflected the ASB themes. When I moved to another liberal Catholic Anglican church around 1999, our Advent candle stand had either 4 purple, or 3 purple and one pink candles – and we lit the pink candle if we had one on the 4th Sunday, since we didn’t have rose vestments, and we used the ASB scheme for prayers.

    In my son’s Anglican parish, where they have congregation and clergy from different traditions, two churches and several services on a Sunday, it depends who is officiating whether the rose pink one gets lit on the 3rd or 4th Sunday – and no-one gets too fussed about it.

    I was curious about the insistence on calling the colour ‘rose’ rather than pink, and Googled some online catalogues for church supplies; a number of them call the 4th candle ‘pink’ I note, risking the wrath of the liturgical pedants!

    • steve
      Dec 22, 2015

      Thanks, Anne. I suspect not getting very fussed about it is a good response, until someone does, at which point knowing something of the history can help.
      Blue is the liturgical colour for advent in some traditions; I wonder if The Promise of His Glory is reflecting that in choosing blue candles?

    • steve
      Dec 22, 2015

      (Oh, on pink and rose: I’m a Baptist; our liturgical colours extend to dark suits only. But I see the – ‘energy’ shall we say – with which some people insist on rose and act on two solid principles: respect for people’s right to narrate their own traditions in their own terms; and self-preservation.)

      • Andrew Kleissner
        Jan 8, 2016

        I’m not sure about that Baptist liturgical colours: maybe you’ve been in Scotland too long! I wear a red preaching gown; and I once went to a local Baptist church on August Bank Holiday Sunday to find the Minister conducting worship in a Hawaiian shirt (and shorts)!

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