The use of candles and wreaths to celebrate holidays has been happening for thousands of years, but the Advent wreath dates from either the 16th or the 19th century, depending on who you're talking to. It definitely is a church tradition...Wikipedia says the Lutheran church, but it was deeply imbedded in the celebrations of the Reformed church we were members of.
Each of the candles represents a particular theme connected with the Christ Child. Light one a week, adding another each succeeding week, until all the candles are lit.
Week 1: Prophecy Candle -- also known as the Expectation or Hope Candle
(Read Isaiah 9:6-7 when lighting this one)
Week 2: The Joy Candle -- also called the Bethlehem Candle, to celebrate the place of Christ's birth
Week 3: The Shepherds Candle -- to honor those who first came to worship the Child
Week 4: The Angels Candle - after the choir which announced Christ's nativity
And the central candle, the Christ candle (often white, to emphasize our cleansing from sin), is lit on Christmas Eve.
More on the Advent wreath is here.
You'll want to start right away -- traditionally the first candle is lit on the first Sunday after Nov. 30. (That makes it Dec. 1 this year.) The most popular colors for Advent candles in the Catholic church are purple (violet) and rose -- the same color as priests' robes, liturgically speaking. Violet is the color for penitence; rose, on the other hand, is often used for the third Sunday in Advent, 'Gaudete' (or "rejoice," from the Latin).
|The liturgical robes for Advent|
Other candle colors, including blue, have been used, as well. (Red candles are most common for Protestant churches in Britain, according to Wikipedia.) The white central candle, however, stays consistent.
Over the years, I've used several different color combinations and arrangements for our Advent wreaths, including small tea candles, like those below, arranged between fir branches. Try adding small Christmas balls, sequin trim or crystals for additional shine.
An Advent wreath not only makes good use of the wonderful candles we have access to this time of year, but it gives them a rich meaning that you can carry in your heart all year long. Try an Advent wreath -- you'll enjoy it.