Should an Advent Wreath
be in the sanctuary?
Louis J. Tofari
During the liturgical seasons of the Church, we witness a variety of customs that help us to enliven our Faith, both through the sacred liturgy and customs observed in the home—or domestic traditions.
One such domestic custom is the Advent Wreath, a decoration of circular evergreen festooned with four candles which counts down the weeks of the Advent Season to the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
The presence of this wreath in the home also serves as a reminder of the necessity to spiritually prepare ourselves during the time of Advent for the Birth of the Savior.
However, it is important that we understand that the Advent Wreath is merely a domestic custom, but not a liturgical practice. This is evidenced by the fact that the wreath’s candles are not considered “cultus candles”—that is, candles used for ritualistic purpose in the context of the sacred liturgy. Nor does any rubrician or liturgical reference manual on candles or church decorations (such as Candles in the Roman Rite), mention the Advent Wreath as a possible practice within the sanctuary (let alone the church).
The Advent Wreath practice is not mentioned as a liturgical practice because strictly-speaking it is a merely domestic custom. Just like hanging one’s stockings up for the visit of St. Nicholas of Bari. Or the moving of the Three Magi figurines through one’s house from the First Sunday of Advent until the Feast of the Epiphany when they finally reach the Christ Child at the manger. All of these home practices are well and good, but again, they do not have any place within a church.
Now within the sanctuary, it is the liturgical decorations that should foremost call to our minds the penitential preparation for Advent, such as the violet vesture on the altar (e.g., the antependium, conopaeum, and missal stand veil), and some places may even follow the laudable practice of using unbleached altar candles. On the other hand, a lighted Advent Wreath in the sanctuary can be somewhat distracting from these official decorations and even focus of the altar itself.
Some might object that the Paschal Candle can also distract from the altar, but it must be recalled that this candle is an official liturgical (or cultus) candle and of the most supreme importance. For this candle is solemnly blessed and lit with the Paschal Fire and it represents Our Lord Himself and the triumph of His Resurrection. So there can be no comparison between the presence of the domestic Advent Wreath and of the liturgical Paschal Candle in the sanctuary.
Also strictly-speaking, only cultus candles should be used within the sanctuary (e.g., as on the altar, in the sanctuary lamp, or held by the acolytes or torchbearers), and in the United States, these must be comprised of at least 51% beeswax (Note: Advent Wreath candles commonly sold are of 100% stearin). Such cultus candles include even the use of additional ones for solemnizing an occasion as on a greater feast or to show additional dignity to Our Lord when exposed in the Blessed Sacrament (e.g., standard candles or candelabra) as well as to pay respect to the deceased (e.g., catafalque candles). Of course, there is even the use of votive candles—which by name are devoted to a specific cultus—and even these are usually situated outside the sanctuary precinct. In all of these cases, these extra candles are mentioned in the rubrics or by liturgical authorities for a cause of cultus.
I have heard some object to the presence of the Advent Wreath in the sanctuary as it is Protestant in origin. Personally, I believe that this is a rather weak argument, since the Catholic Church can (and has) adopted and baptized many non-Christian practices as her own for the sacred liturgy, such as the hieratic Itala Vetus form of Latin used in the Roman Canon. Thus, it is my opinion that the strongest argument for not displaying an Advent Wreath in the sanctuary is the liturgical, or cultus, one.
Even if it were true that the Advent Wreath had a Protestant origin—though I believe that this claim is not entirely historically accurate [see footnote 6 below]—the fact is, this decoration undoubtedly integrates Catholic symbols as will be explained below. Furthermore, today the custom of the Advent Wreath tends to actually be more associated with Catholicism then with Protestantism, while its use within Catholic homes has been traditionally encouraged by such authorities as Fr. Francis X. Weiser, author of Handbook of Christian Feasts & Customs. So while the Advent Wreath is not a liturgical practice and thus should not be present in the sanctuary, on the other hand, it is much to be recommended as a custom for Catholics to observe in their homes.
For the last few paragraphs perhaps, many readers have probably been anxiously waiting to read whether or not an Advent Wreath could possibly be displayed elsewhere in the church, say in the nave or narthex. In my opinion, the answer is yes, and I have seen some edifying examples of this practice (e.g., suspending a large wreath from the ceiling). But then again, one would wonder what would be the overall benefit in doing this, since liturgically-speaking, Advent is already—and officially—represented in the church by the sanctuary appointments and vestments of the sacred ministers, let alone the propers of the Mass. Another caveat is that such a decorative display should be situated so that it does not interfere with the view of the sanctuary or altar.
To conclude this piece about the Advent Wreath, let us briefly examine its symbolisms and thus better understand the message that it should give to us in the comfort of our Catholic homes as we prepare for the coming of our Divine Infant Savior.
Evergreen boughs have long been decoratively used since ancient times to signify hope and everlasting life, as well as festive joy. In the context of the Advent Wreath, the evergreen reminds us to have hope in the coming of the Christ our Savior—the Messiah—and the redemption of everlasting life that He will obtain for us (particularly through the special graces that the liturgical season of Christmas will bestow upon us). This in turn will bestow on us the supernatural joy that only Christ can give.
Furthermore, the scent of evergreen boughs (e.g., of pine or fir) provides a clean and refreshing odor, further impressing upon us through our senses of the importance of purifying our souls during Advent.
The circular wreath signifies the eternity of the Holy Trinity, and one could even say, the eternity of time, in which the coming—or advent—of the Only-Begotten Son of the Father for the redemption of mankind was always in the mind of Almighty God.
The four candles signify the preparatory four weeks, or Sundays, of Advent. Today these candles are often colored, three as violet and a fourth as rose. The rose-colored candle is for the Third Sunday of Advent, also called “Gaudete Sunday” after its Introit which commends us to “rejoice for the Lord is near”. The rose candle also indicates the unique Roman custom of this Sunday, when rose-colored vestments are worn instead of violet to signify a sense of subdued joy that our penance during Advent and expectation for Christmas is nearly at an end.
It is interesting to note, that originally, four white—or even unbleached—candles were used for the Advent Wreath. While in some places, even a larger fifth candle was situated in the center of the wreath—signifying the birth of Christ—which was lit during the Christmas Octave to show the accomplishment of Advent’s preparations.
Another commonly included decoration on the evergreen itself is the presence of fruits of the tree, such as apples, pine cones or nuts. These “fruits” represent the additional sweet blessings (as signified by a fruit such as an apple)—or future growth in sanctifying grace (as signified by the seed bearing cones or nuts)—we expectantly hope to obtain from Christ’s birth and during the subsequent Christmas season.
1 In Latin, the word cultus refers to an official form of religious practice (or rite). It can also be used to refer to the “cult of the saints”, meaning the form of veneration or devotion given to them by the Catholic Church.
2 Concerning the Nativity Scene or crèche seen customarily erected in churches during Advent and Christmas time, two distinctions should be noted. First, this is an immemorial and ancient Roman Catholic practice (which even predates St. Francis of Assisi’s famous incident of 1223—read more about the history of the praesepe here—NB: I ghostwrote this piece several years ago), and second, ideally this non-liturgical display should not be situated within the main sanctuary (though it can be placed in a side chapel). For more about the artistry of the Nativity Scene, see this 1934 book, The Christmas Presepio in Italy.
Also, there is often some customary ceremonial attached to the manger scene, such as processing through the church before or after Midnight Mass with the celebrant bearing a figure of the Divine Infant, and after solemnly placing it in the crib, incensing the Christ Child—this practice in particular is derived from the ceremony observed at the actual birthplace of Our Lord in Bethlehem.
Another example is an actual liturgical practice (sanctioned by the Sacred Congregation of Rites) where the Infant Child is displayed above the altar in conjunction with the altar cross, and is separately incensed during Mass (e.g., before the Introit and during the Offertory) along with the altar cross.
4 For more information about this fascinating aspect about one of the two kinds of liturgical Latin used in the Roman Mass (the other being the Vulgate of St. Jerome), see Dr. Christine Morhmann’s excellent book, Liturgical Latin, Its Origins and Character.
5 First published in 1958. A version of this invaluable book was printed by TAN Books in 1998 under the title, Religious Customs in the Family: The Radiation of the Liturgy into Catholic Homes, and is available from Christianbook.com.
6 Personally, I believe that the Lutheran claims of Martin Luther inventing the Christmas Tree and/or the Advent Wreath are historical fallacies—as are many other popular myths about Lutheranism. Most likely, Martin Luther simply adopted and promoted some existing local Germanic Catholic customs and then—successfully—branded them as his own ideas.