During the liturgical season of Advent, many churches opt to display an Advent wreath as a way to mark the days and weeks leading up to Christmas and the birth of Jesus Christ.
But what is an Advent wreath? Where did the practice originate from — and what do the candles and their colors mean?
"Advent," which derives from the Latin word "adventus," means "coming, approach, arrival." It is the liturgical season that immediately precedes Christmas.
In addition to being a season of preparation, Advent is also a season of penance, "in the sense of preparing, quieting and disciplining our hearts for the full joy of Christmas," notes the website for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Advent has many unique traditions and customs associated with it. Perhaps the most famous of those is the Advent wreath.
Churches for centuries have displayed Advent wreaths, says the website for the Christian prayer app Hallow, but it is unclear when and why it began to be used.
The practice comes from Germany, said Hallow, and is possibly a Christianized adaptation of a pre-Christian Germanic winter tradition anticipating the return of spring.
By the 1600s, both Catholic and Lutheran churches in Germany established traditions of the Advent wreath. These traditions would spread over time, and Advent wreaths are now commonly found in the homes and churches of those of the Christian faith all over the world.
In modern times, an Advent wreath is typically made of some sort of evergreen boughs. It contains four candles: three that are purple or violet, and one that is pink or rose.
The candles are lit each Sunday. On the first Sunday of Advent, one purple candle is lit; the second, two purple candles; the third, two purple candles and the pink candle; and finally, all four are lit on the final Sunday of Advent.
The candles, in order of the weeks of Advent, symbolize hope, peace, joy and love, said Hallow. The colors correspond to the traditional colors of vestments worn by clergy during Advent.
Sometimes, a white candle is placed in the center of the wreath; it's referred to as the "Christ candle."
This candle is lit on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.
In 2023, with Christmas Day on a Monday, the fourth Sunday of Advent falls on Christmas Eve.
Liturgically, this means that the fourth Sunday of Advent will be observed from sundown on Saturday through sundown on Sunday, and the Christmas liturgy will be celebrated on Sunday evening through Monday.
For Rev. Hans Fiene, pastor of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Crestwood, Missouri, Advent wreaths are "a beautiful reminder to slow down, focus and prepare our hearts for the arrival of our King, who first came to us in Bethlehem's manger."
Added Fiene, "As the light from the wreath shines brighter each week, the anticipation grows."
"Our Lord's return is even closer," he said.
"We are nearer to the day when the royal, pierced hands of Christ welcome us into His presence," he also said.
The flickering candles of the wreath, said Fiene, are a gentle reminder that "we are closer to joining the song of glory the angels first proclaimed on the night of Christ's birth."