Long before the birth of Jesus Christ, wreaths were commonly used as a symbol of celebration and achievement. Laurel wreaths were used to crown the winners in the early Olympic games, and the tradition of bestowing wreaths upon the winners of sporting events is still followed today in some events, such as horse racing and car racing. But now wreaths are most often used for another celebration – Christmas.
The first Christmas Advent wreath was invented in the 1830s by Johann Hinrich Wichern, a Protestant parson who ran an orphanage in in Hamburg, Germany. Wichern made a wooden ring and affixed red and white candles on one side of it to help the children count the days until Christmas. During each service of daily prayer, a child would light one candle, until on Christmas Eve all of them would be illuminated. It is thought that children liked this ring so much that they decorated it with evergreen twigs. Later the number of candles was reduced to four and evergreen boughs became an important component of the rings.
The evergreen branches represent everlasting life brought through Jesus Christ, and the circular shape of the wreath represents God himself, with no beginning and no end.
Typically, three of the candles in an advent wreath are violet-colored, and one is rose-colored, but some choose to use all purple or all blue candles. When used in household devotion, one candle is lit on the first evening of Advent, which falls on a Saturday. Each Saturday thereafter during Advent another candle is lit. Some wreaths have a large white candle in the center which is lit on Christmas Day to signify Christ’s birth.
The tradition of Advents wreaths took a while to catch on in Germany and spread throughout Europe, but by the time German immigrants came to America, they brought this tradition with them. Evergreen wreaths without candles also became a popular symbol of the holidays. Now it’s a household tradition for many families around the world to have a wreath made from evergreen hanging upon the front door of their home during the holidays.