History and Meaning of the Advent Wreath

Holly wreaths formed part of the Roman midwinter celebration of Saturnalia. Many such customs were absorbed into the Christian celebration of Christmas. Holly represented Jesus’s crown of thorns and its berries remembered his blood. © Karen Andrews.

Waste not, want not. The Advent wreath tradition started as a way to use up any trimmings from the Christmas tree in the 16th century. The tree would either be trimmed to fit into the home or to neaten up its shape. Christians wanted a triangular Christmas tree to represent the Holy Trinity. They were copying Saint Boniface who reputedly used the triangular shape of the fir tree to explain the concept of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the 7th Century.

Roman Wreaths

As we have already noted in this year’s Advent Botany blogs, many Christian customs have their roots in Pagan traditions. The Christian church absorbed many of the old ways. Wreaths were associated with victory and honour in Roman times. Early wreaths were made out of laurel, olive leaves, wild celery and pine. Holly was used for the midwinter Pagan celebration of Saturnalia. This was an ancient Roman festival held in honour of the god Saturn between 17 and 23 December in the old Julian calendar. It involved many of the customs that we associate with Christmas today, such as feasting, giving gifts and charity. The date was later moved to 25 December.

Christian Significance

Christmas wreaths added new meaning to the old tradition. Holly represented Jesus’s crown of thorns and its red berries recalled his blood. The circular shape and evergreen leaves symbolised eternal life and God’s unending love.

Advent wreath

A German Lutheran pastor, Johann Hinrich Wichern (1808–1881), is generally credited with turning the wreath into an Advent symbol. He introduced the custom of lighting candles in a circle of different sizes and colours as Christmas grew closer. Christians saw this as a symbol of their faith and the light that Jesus brought to the world.

Advent Candles

According to the tradition, the Advent wreath held 4 candles, one for each of the Sundays in Advent. Three candles were purple and one was red/pink. The first candle was called the Prophecy candle and represented hope. The second purple candle was called Bethlehem and symbolised love and Jesus in the manger. The third candle was called the Shepherd and represented Advent joy. The final candle was called the Angel candle and symbolised peace. Some wreaths included a red candle to represent Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. A fifth central white candle was often lit to welcome the birth of Jesus on Christmas Eve.

Christian Welcome

Today, when we hang an Advent wreath on our front door for decoration, we have perhaps forgotten the original layers of meaning. A wreath is intended to demonstrate a Christian welcome to Jesus into our homes and the spirit of Christmas.

Make your own Advent Wreath?

Below are a few wreaths seen today on front doors. Some are quite innovative and imaginative, although there is a lot of plastic. Why not make your own Advent wreath closer to the old tradition this year? There is an excellent YouTube video below to help you.

References and Further Reading

Source: Triangle Nursery Ltd. YouTube. 28 November 2017

Previous Advent Blog on Holly


Karen does not seek or receive any commercial interest or advantage from this blog. She is not promoting any business venture. She simply loves to share fascinating facts about plants. These pages illustrate her love of plants, botany, biodiversity, gardens and creative expression. There is always so much to learn about plant diversity. This blog is designed as a showcase for photography, commentary on plants and wildlife, gardens and other places visited, horticulture and related topics. Viewpoints are her own, not those of her employer.

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