Advent Wreaths and Advent in Germany

By Francine McKenna on Email

The enchantment of Christmas is everywhere during a German Advent and Weihnachten. There is commercial hype, although it is minimal.  These days the traditional seasonal specialties Stollen and Lebkuchen do begin to appear in the stores by October, however the deeply entrenched Christmas traditions, both religious and secular, attached to the celebration of Advent means it is a reflective as well as a joyful festival.  As it takes place on the Sunday nearest to St. Andrews Day on November 30th, the first day of Advent begins on a different date each year and old German Christmas customs and festivities fill the four Sundays it covers.

While it was originally a time for Christians to be baptized, prepare for the second coming, or fast from November 12th following the feast of St. Martin until Christmas Day, Advent is now a period of contemplation, anticipation, traditions, Advent wreaths, Advent calendars, Weihnachtsplaetzen (Christmas Cookies), and Weihnachtsmaerkte, the German Christmas markets.

On the First Sunday of Advent, children write and decorate Christmas letters for the Christkind (the Christ Child), who in many regions of Germany brings the presents and the family Christmas tree on Heiligabend (Christmas Eve), while an essential element of German Christmas celebrations will also appear. Hanging in churches and on tables of most homes on that Sunday will be an Advent Wreath, the Adventskranz.

The making of an annual Advent Wreath has become an enjoyable Christmas tradition for many. Fronds of evergreens, conifer or box, which have been purchased or taken from the garden or countryside, are bound onto either a straw ring base or one formed from bent and twisted branches, and the completed evergreen circle symbolizes eternity and the triumph of life over darkness.  Frequently included are sprigs of laurel as a symbol of Christmas and courage, rosemary for fragrance and remembrance, holly and ivy for good luck and eternal life, together with small pine cones and berries for the harvest.

In keeping with what used to be Advent days of “fasting and piety”, colored decorations are not added until Christmas Day when the wreath becomes a “Christmas wreath”.  For Advent, four candles are attached securely with special pins, with one to be lit on each of the four Sundays leading to Christmas until by the fourth Sunday all four are burning.

Originally the Adventskranz had 28 candles. Twenty four average sized candles, then four larger ones. Three in purple, symbolizing Hope, Peace, and Love, and one rose colored candle to represent Joy which was lit on the third Sunday. However it is now customary to see four of the same color, red, blue, green, white, gold or silver, while a fifth and white candle is often placed within the wreath, the Christ Candle, representing angels, the birth of Jesus, and the light of the world, and this is then lit on Christmas Eve and every day until Epiphany.

The lighting of the candles, known as the Adventstunde, involves in some homes prayers and a blessing of the Adventskranz, but traditionally families gather around the wreath, a large plate of Weihnachtsplaetzen, some Gluehwein, Pharisaeer or another favorite seasonal drink at hand, light the candle and listen to Christmas stories, sing Christmas carols, or recite an old and much loved German Christmas poem.

Advent, Advent, ein Lichtlein brennt,
Erst eins, dann zwei, dann drei, dann vier,
dann steht dan Christkind vor der Tuer

which loosely translated means:

Advent Advent, a little light burns,
First one, then two, then three, then four,
Then the Christ Child stands in front of the door

The candle will be allowed to burn for an hour, or during the evening meal, and large candles for a short time each evening for the following week, to be lit together with a new one the next Sunday until all four are burning.  In this form, the tradition is thought to have begun in Hamburg at the beginning of the 19th century.

Wreaths originated in the north of a pagan Europe where, in the cold dark months leading to Winter Solstice, evergreens were gathered into round piles with candles placed upon them; the circle, green leaves and light from the candles ultimately became associated with the yearly cycle, the continuation of life throughout winter and thankfulness for the light of the sun.

From that folk tradition came the Advent Wreaths which, until relatively recently, supplied the color, festive atmosphere and aroma in German homes during the days leading up to Heiligabend, because, although it is a custom that is no longer followed as closely, it was not usual to have a Christmas tree inside the home until Christmas Eve when it was brought by the Christkind.

Throughout Germany, and even on some lakes, an Adventskranz, its four candles marking the four weeks of Advent and symbolizing the coming of Christmas, remains at the heart of most Weihnachten celebrations.

Have a wonderful ‘Adventszeit’!


Source: Bella Online
Photos by the_42nd_dragon, Lawrence OP, and elkit via flickr

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Francine McKenna