At any time of the year, wreaths look lovely on front doors, on fireplace mantles, and with candles on tables and stands. Wreaths have deep and universal meaning. They are formed in the shape of a circle that has no beginning and no ending, and so they represent eternity.
Wreaths in History
Wreaths had significance long before Christianity spread in Europe. For example, the wreath was a sign of victory to the Greeks, who crowned their winning athletes with laurel wreaths.
No one knows for sure when the evergreen wreath—with its long-lasting, ever-green boughs—came to symbolize the eternal cycle of life. We do know that candles were added at some point—perhaps for the practical benefit of light and warmth as well as for symbolic reasons. The evergreen wreath with its candles says, “Life will be renewed.”
There are records indicating that at some point during the sixteenth century, evergreen wreaths with four candles (sometimes separated by six small candles) were lit during the four weeks of Advent. This symbolism points to the coming of the Messiah, for whom we wait with eager anticipation.
The Advent Wreath Tradition
The Advent wreath in our Christian tradition represents Christ, our Light, who came once in history, who still comes to each of us every day especially in the Eucharist, and who will come to us again in glory. We celebrate and remember how Jesus came to us so humbly, as a child, to restore us to the unity and oneness of God’s love. The candles on the Advent wreath remind us that Christ, who is our light, calls us to be light in the world as well, to renew our joy in God and one another as we celebrate the light and warmth of love during the coldest and darkest time of the year.
A Wreath for the Christmas Season
We are familiar with the Advent wreath and its four candles, one for each of the four weeks before Christmas. Many parishes have candle-lighting services before Mass each weekend of Advent.
The Advent candles are violet, a color of royalty and, during Advent, we anticipate the coming of the King of Kings. On the Third Sunday of Advent, called Gaudete Sunday (Latin for “rejoice”), we light a rose-colored candle to symbolize our hope and joy in the coming of Jesus Christ. We become aware of the joy that characterizes our waiting for Jesus during this season and always.
When the Advent candles are lit and we gaze at the soft glow of light, we can imagine ancient Israel and the people gathered under the stars around campfires late at night. They would tell their stories of God’s love, remember how God had been present to them through the generations. They would share their longing for the coming of the Messiah, acknowledge their joyful hope, and renew their confidence in God’s promise to send a Savior.
Although liturgical traditions in the Catholic faith do not routinely emphasize a Christmas wreath, similar to the Advent wreath, one would be appropriate. The same symbolism of the circle applies to the Christmas wreath, representing our eternal life with Jesus, the Messiah, in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Because there are three weeks in the Christmas Season, each with its own meaning and joy, why not decorate a Christmas wreath using three candles, one for the Nativity of the Lord; one for the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God; and one for the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord. You might use white candles, white being the liturgical color of the Christmas Season.
Some wreath lovers advocate three different colors for the solemnities of the Christmas Season. For the Solemnity of the Nativity, you could use white, the liturgical color for the Christmas Season symbolizing joy. For the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God, you could use blue, a traditional color for Mary. For the Solemnity of the Epiphany, you could use gold, representing the royal homage and gifts that the magi brought to the infant Jesus.
Say to the Children
This is the season of Advent. Advent means “to come or to arrive.” With the Advent wreath and its four candles for the four weeks of Advent, we recall how the Jewish people waited for centuries for the coming of the Messiah. We remember that Jesus the Messiah finally came as an infant, being born in Bethlehem.
Through the years, many cultures used wreaths during every season. Wreaths were decorated according to the time of year—flowers in spring, leaves in autumn, etc. In the middle of the winter, when nature seemed to have died, evergreen wreaths symbolized the cycle of life. Although nature appeared to have died, it would come around fully and return to life. In the spring, nature would awaken and come back to life in the natural cycle of the seasons.
The circular shape of a wreath, often made of evergreens, symbolizes life everlasting that Jesus brought to us. The round shape, with no beginning and no ending, speaks of eternity, the never-ending life that we will have with Jesus in heaven.
Native Americans believed the circle shape of the wreath to be sacred; they called it “the sacred hoop.” Black Elk, an Oglala Sioux who was a Catholic catechist to his people, explained it this way:
We might be inclined to picture ourselves on a ladder in life, looking down on those below us and considering them to be not quite as good or smart as we are, and looking up on those above us and considering them to be better or smarter than we are. Instead, however, we can imagine ourselves in a circle so that we are all on the same level with everyone else, everyone being our brothers and sisters. In a circle, like the shape of a wreath, we can look into the eyes of others. We can better see others as our friends. We can better understand their hopes and fears. We can see how we can help them and they can see how they can help us. In a circle, we can join hands and work for the good of all.
The circle or wreath is a symbol of the way to live as members of God’s family. We are able to live at one with God and one another in peace and happiness.
We look forward to Christmas all during Advent, and we use the Advent wreath to count the four weeks leading to Christmas. We light another candle on the Advent wreath each week until all four are brightening our church or our home, helping us to welcome Jesus.
During the Christmas Season, which follows Advent, we celebrate Jesus’ birth and all the wonderful events around it. We can celebrate the Christmas Season with a wreath as well, called the Christmas wreath. The Christmas wreath would have only three candles on it: one for the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord; one for the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God; and one for the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord.
The colors of ribbons and the candles on the Christmas wreath would change from violet and rose, as they were on the Advent wreath, to white, which is the color the Church uses to celebrate the Christmas Season. Or the candles on our Christmas wreath might be different for each Sunday. We could use white for the Nativity. For the Solemnity of Mary, we could use the color blue, which is often associated with Mary. For the Solemnity of the Epiphany, we could use gold, which honors Jesus, the King of Kings, and symbolizes the gifts that the three kings brought to offer the newborn King.
After saying Advent prayers for four weeks, we can gather around our Christmas wreath each week and say a special prayer for that week.
Make paper Christmas wreaths to help your students celebrate each week of the Christmas Season. Each child can make a wreath to take home to share with his or her family, or you can work together to make one wreath for your classroom prayer table.
ACTIVITY: Christmas Wreath Craft
* white 9” paper plate
* cupcake liners, white or colors of your choice
* sheets of white paper for candles
* sheets of red, yellow, and orange tissue paper
* hole punch
* stapler, tape, glue
Optional: ½” round dowel or similar stick about as wide as you want candles to be
- Cut out the center of the plate, leaving only the outer rim (wreath base).
- Cut four 8 ½” x 5” strips of white paper.
- Roll each strip and fasten edges with tape. (Rolling the paper around a dowel can make this easier. Run a strip of glue along one of the 8½” edges. Then place the 8½” side of the sheet without glue along the dowel and roll the sheet around the dowel until the sticky edge meets the sheet. Press glued edge against the sheet, let glue dry, and slip the dowel out of the tube. You might find tape works better than glue.) The tube is a candle.
- Cut four slits ¾” deep from the base of the candle, equal distance from one another. Spread out these four tabs and fold one over the center edge of the wreath base. Tape or glue in place. Tape or glue the remaining three tabs onto the wreath base. Attach the other two candles to the wreath base in the same way, spacing them around the wreath as desired.
- Cut short strips of red, yellow, and orange tissue paper and tape or glue them inside the holes at the tops of the candles to appear as flames.
- Attach cupcake liners to the wreath base to form flowers. Twist the center of the cupcake liners and push the twisted centers through holes punched around the wreath base. Or simply glue or staple the liners (flowers) in place.
Christmas Wreath Prayers
These prayers can be shared around your classroom Christmas wreath on your prayer table, or the children can hold their own wreaths during the prayers. Or copy these prayers and send them home with the children to pray with their families around their Christmas wreaths. Sing or play favorite religious Christmas songs before and after each prayer.
Prayer for the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord
Leader: Dear Jesus, thank you for coming into our world. You came to us as a little child, yet you were the wonderful and awesome Son of God. You are human and divine, Friend and Savior. We learn from you and join you in your work for our Loving Father. Help us to rejoice in your coming. With the grace of the Holy Spirit, may we be open to God’s light and love and share it with others.
Prayer for the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God
Leader: Dear Mary, by saying “yes” to what God asked of you, you brought Jesus into the world, through whom all things are made new. By him we are restored to God, and through him we have eternal life. Please pray for us to God, our Loving Father, that we too say “yes” to his invitation. Your life of faith showed us how we can share the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Prayer for the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord
Leader: Dear God, Loving Creator, you drew kings from afar, bringing gifts and offering homage to Jesus as King of Creation and all you have made. Help us to adore Jesus, like the kings did, with our finest gifts of love and charity. May we use our talents and resources—especially our love, prayer, and selflessness—to further his peace, love, and joy in the world.
Jeanne Heiberg is the author of Advent and Christmas Crafts (Paulist Press) and Advent calendars (Creative Communications). She has taught art, writing, creative catechetics, and meditation, and has directed parish catechetical programs
This article first appeared in Catechist magazine, October 2011.
Image Credit: Dimijana / Shutter Stock 748933513