Advent has arrived!
Like Lent, Advent is meant to be a time of preparation prior to Christmas. It is a time of penance. Unlike Lent, Advent does not have obligatory dietary and fasting rules and neither is there a custom of giving something up. In addition, many celebrate Christmas more or less through decorations, music, and parties weeks before the actual day, which obscures further the penitential nature of the Advent season.
There are several ways of observing Advent. Two of those ways is by counting it down using an Advent wreath and displaying a physical reminder of the season with a Jesse tree.
The Advent wreath is a common feature of the season to Catholics and so-called “liturgical churches” (e.g. Anglicans and Methodists). The wreath can be either a circle or straight line bearing four candles: three purple, one pink. It can be placed on a table or a family’s home altar. Each candle corresponds with a Sunday in Advent, with the pink one corresponding with the third Sunday, which is known as Guadete Sunday.
Not only does each candle represent each of the four Sundays of Advent, but they also recall the Patriarchs, the Prophets, St. John the Baptist, and Our Lady, respectively.
History of the Wreath
The history of the Advent wreath is obscure. There are some indications that pre-Christian Germanic people used wreathes bearing lit candles as symbols of hope during the long, dark winter months.
However, just because pagans used circles of candles combined with evergreens doesn’t necessarily mean that’s where Catholics got the idea. Evergreen wreaths were used in baptismal and wedding ceremonies as early as the 7th century. By the early Middle Ages, Advent wreaths were in use and by the late Middle Ages, garlands and wreaths of evergreens became part of Christmas decorations. It’s possible this grew out of the sacramental usage of evergreens.
The modern Advent wreath became more popular after the Reformation. Scholars suggest a Lutheran minister initiated the first “official” Advent wreath in a school mission. By the end of the 19th century, German Catholics began regularly using the wreath and the practice immigrated to America in the mid-20th century.
In fact, it wasn’t until the wreath came to America that people began using candles whose colors corresponded with the liturgical colors of that Sunday. Before this, red candles and sometimes a white “Christ candle” were used.
Using the Wreath
When on the Sunday the candles are lit depends on the household. However, according to Fisheaters.com, a family might want to light them prior to Sunday dinner and then blow them out after supper.
There are also songs, blessings, prayers, and readings that can make up the ritual of lighting the candles. The one on the web page referenced above is just one example. Each reading should connect with that Sunday of Advent in some way.
Having an Advent wreath allows a family to come together as a domestic church to worship God. It also teaches children the importance of prayer in the home.
It seems like every year, people put up their Christmas trees earlier and earlier. This might have something to do with stores putting out Christmas decorations as soon as Halloween ends. Luckily, though, Advent comes with its own tree, the Jesse Tree.
Inspired by Isaiah 11:1, a Jesse Tree is a representation of Christ’s genealogy. Jesse was the father of King David; it is David’s line from which Christ springs. Some have 28 symbols, each one representing a generation in St. Matthew’s genealogy of Christ. All Jesse Trees, however, have decorations that summarize the Old Testament.
History of the Jesse Tree
When the Church depicted Jesus’ genealogy in sacred art, a design was developed that looked like a tree springing from a reclining Christ. On the branches of the tree were the ancestors of Our Lord. A very beautiful example of this exists in window in the Cathedral of Chartres.
In the Middle Ages, Mystery Plays were conducted in church yards to teach and celebrate the Faith. When the story of Adam and Eve was told, the Tree of Life was depicted as a cut tree with apples hanging from it. Quite possibly, this is the origin of the Christmas tree but it also could be part of the origins of the Jesse Tree.
Using the Jesse Tree
The form the tree takes depends on the family. A small, artificial tree could be used or a branch brought in from outside. What matters is the collection of symbols. They can be hung all at once on December 1st or through the month until December 25th. Some trees stress the Prophets while others stress Bible history. The fun thing about the Jesse Tree is how personal it can be to the person or family.
The Jesse Tree and the Advent Wreath are two ways a family, couple, or individual person can observe Advent. They recall Sacred Scripture and help to prepare us to celebrate the birth of our Savior. The Jesse Tree, in particular, ties in Salvation History while the Advent Wreath reminds us of the light and hope that came into the world with Jesus Christ.
Whichever way you choose to observe this penitential season, we wish you a Happy Advent.