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The Story of the Advent Wreath

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The Advent wreath, like so many of our cherished Christmas traditions, has a German origin.

A thick evergreen wreath adorned with with four candles: this is the image that comes to mind when we think of a classic Advent wreath. They’re as common as Christmas trees in German homes during the run-up to Christmas—and not uncommon here. So what is the origin of this magical German tradition? The Advent wreath made its debut in Hamburg, in the early 19th century. Christmas was a big deal in Hamburg’s evangelical Rauhe Haus (House), a foundation founded in 1833 by Johann Hinrich Wichern to care for orphans. In the pre-Christmas season, the children pestered Wichern continuously, asking him how many days remained before Christmas. So, in 1839, to address this annual problem, Wichern fashioned a kind of Christmas calendar—a cartwheel decorated with lights. He found a wheel and attached as many candles to it as there were days between the first Sunday in Advent and Christmas Eve, unlike today’s Advent calendars, which count the days from December 1 until Christmas, always 24 days. Every year, from Advent One until Christmas, there is a different number of days depending on the calendar: 22, when Christmas Eve falls on the fourth Sunday of Advent, up to 28, when Christmas Eve is on the Saturday after Advent Four. In 1839 there were 23 days. Wichern’s first “wreath” had 19 small and four large candles. He hung it up in the prayer hall of the orphanage. Wichern had 19 small red candles and four thick white ones. Every day a new candle was lit—a small one for the each weekday, a big one for each Sunday. Thus the children always knew how many days were left until Christmas. The wheel had the added benefit of teaching the children how to count.

Today, Greifswalder boatwright Robert Schneider has revived the original Advent wheel and produces a model with 28 candles—four large ones for the Advent Sundays and 24 small ones for the other days. His clients, though, are mainly churches. The large candlesticks are ill-suited for home use, since they pose a fire hazard and generate a considerable amount of heat.

It was not until around 1860 that people started adorning their wreathes with fir clippings. By the turn of the 20th century, they had found prominent places in Protestant churches and private homes across the country. In 1925, for the first time, a wreath was placed in a Catholic church in Cologne. By the time of the Second World War, you could find all sorts of variations around the world. Today, there are plastic wreaths, porcelain wreaths, fold-out travel wreaths, you name it. But modern wreaths all have one thing in common: unlike the original Wichern wheel, there are now only four candles, one for each Advent Sunday. In the Anglican tradition, the colors of the candles frequently represent the liturgical colors for the four Advent Sundays—three purple ones and a single rose-colored one for the third Sunday in Advent: “Gaudete Sunday.” The remaining candles have fallen by the wayside, arguably because featuring more than 20 candles would require a wreath diameter of three to six feet. In Das Rauhe Haus in Hamburg, however, the Wichern tradition continues. There, during the Advent season, there is still an original wheel, just as J.H. Wichern devised it, 180 years ago.

Das Rauhe Haus continues to serve the Hamburg area with a school, a university, and a raft of social services and programs for all ages. From their website:

We look after children, young people and their families. We care for elderly people and support individuals with intellectual disabilities as well as those with mental illnesses. We educate children, teenagers and young adults.

Adapted from an article on ndr.de (the North German Radio website) by Cornelius Kob.