A family Advent wreath enhances the experience of waiting for Christmas and provides a focus for faith-based activities at home. Especially for children, making, tending and using an Advent wreath provides respite from commercial holiday anticipation. For a family, an Advent wreath serves as a concrete reminder that generations of faithful people have waited for the spiritual meaning of Christmas. Make a wreath at home to redirect the focus of Christmas back where it belongs.
The symbols used in an Advent wreath--a circle, burning lights and evergreens--hark back to winter customs in northern climates that may predate Christianity. Probably established as a home custom in the early Lutheran church, like this combination of symbols, liturgical seasonal colors, the cross and the pictures in stained-glass windows, an Advent wreath served as one more way to teach people who might be unable to read the tenets of faith. The spread of the wreath to other denominations illustrates both the power of the symbol and the historic closeness of church life to everyday life.
Mysteries and Adaptations
Today the traditional colors of candles in an Advent wreath are purple or dark blue, pink or rose, and white, but this was not always so, nor is it a requirement for making an Advent wreath. The Rev. Ken Collins, of the Garfield Memorial Christian Church, McLean, Virginia, summarizes conventional thinking on the use of purple as a color befitting royalty, but his explanation of the rose candle disappears in a forest of hands raised by other denominations. Catholic families are likely to hark back to traditional folk connections between Mary and the rose. Anglicans will add a social-history gloss, citing the prayer for the Third Sunday in Advent that begins, "Stir up your power, O Lord," as the signal for servants to stir up the Christmas pudding for the manor house celebration. The pink candle, therefore, marked the last day servants would see their own families until after Christmas Day. Again, the arguments testify to the power of symbols and the way humans will often recount matters of the spirit with folklore.
Making a Traditional Advent Wreath
Simple supplies are needed: A ring of floral foam, preferably on a shallow tray to which a little water can be added. Evergreen sprigs; children can be encouraged to find as many kinds of evergreens growing as possible--and the selection may be surprisingly large. Evergreens with berries and cones with seeds add a dimension of seasonal change and expectation. Candles and secure holders; in houses with younger children, short pillar candles may be safer than long tapers. Four candles can be placed in holes in the foam ring or in holders around the wreath. The fifth candle is the Christ or Christmas candle, centered in the wreath and lit when Christmas finally comes.
Especially with very young children, no-burn wreaths have a particular appeal, both because of fire safety and because of the fun you can have making them together. Cut construction paper or felt to make a wreath of leaves. Wrap half-length paper-towel rollers in candle-colored paper, and light your no-burn candles, one a week, by taping tissue or construction paper flames to the top. One craft reference suggests tracing a child's hand print as an evergreen pattern; you could add the hand prints of all family members to your wreath, giving each a different shade of green. Saturday or Sunday night can become add-to-the-wreath night, as it has in many households.
Making the Wreath Tradition Your Family Tradition
While references contain basic directions, this folk tradition can be carried out in any way your creativity leads. What matters, after all, is what preparing for Advent and Christmas means in your family. A neighbor, for example, years ago purchased a prefabricated wreath form when her first child was born. Somehow, the tradition of adding tokens of important events that happened during Advent was just right for her family. Their traditional wreath, therefore, has a baby tooth lost by the first-born one December; a ticket stub from the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Show; a penny found on the curb; and a dab of the colored nail polish the seventh-grader wore to her first Christmas dance, among other treasures. Every year, something gets added--actually, a family memory, no matter what the object. However your wreath looks on the outside, what really matters is what happens to your family members on the inside. Enjoy your wreath.