Many of us know that Advent candles have meaning, however if we all sat down and discussed their meanings, we probably would not have the same answers. That is because as the years wore on, and the church grew in denominations, the meanings changed. In fact, we wouldn’t even be able to agree on how many candles to have! So let’s look at this a bit.
Some, but not many churches, will actually have one candle for each day of Advent. Still others, although not many, will have one big candle with 24 marks on it. They allow the candle to burn down one mark each day until the candle is gone. Although these sound very interesting, we are not going to focus on these traditions.
The most common tradition of one candle per week of Advent is what we will look at. However, this isn’t even agreed upon! So, let’s look at history a little bit. And yes, I will be generalizing the history quite a bit so we don’t get bogged down in it! 🙂
The church, centuries ago, had a split. There was the Eastern Church and the Western Church. We are not going to go through the history of why. Just know that there is. Let’s deal with the Eastern Church first as it is a little easier!
In the Eastern faiths, Advent is actually a 40 day fasting period and six candles are used; green (faith), blue (hope), gold (love), white (peace), purple (repentence), and red (Holy Communion). You will see that some of these candles translate into the Western Church as well.
So let’s talk a little about the Western Church. The Roman Catholic church went through the Protestant Reformation. This was the first big break. As time goes on, more and more denominations form and the denominations become less and less hierarchical. As the churches throw away the hierarchies, they often toss aside traditions and ceremonies as well, feeling they are part of the system they are trying to leave. So, very broadly speaking, the more hierarchy there is in the denomination, the more cohesion there is regarding traditions and symbols. In regards to Advent, many of the newer denominations do not celebrate. If they do, they may or may not use candles and the candles may or may not have meaning. When you get into the autonomous churches denominations (ex: Baptist, etc.), each church may do it differently. There is a swing in these newer denominations to start adding the traditions back in, but the traditions are taking different symbology.
So, all that said, let’s look at these candles!
For many denominations, especially those that have retained hierarchy, you will find four candles. Usually there are 3 purple candles and 1 pink candle. The purple color is used because it is the liturgical color for prayer, penance, and sacrifice. The pink candle goes back to the tradition of fasting during this period. It would symbolize the rejoicing that happens at the completion of the fast. It also signals the start of a change in the focus of the Advent season. Pink, or rose, is the liturgical color for joy.
Now, some denominations will not use purple. Instead they use blue. This is most often in Protestant churches, however, not always. Blue is used because it symbolizes hope and expectation and less on repentance.
But we aren’t done!!! Sometimes, a fifth candle is added! This is a newer tradition. However, if it is a wreath of five candles, the fifth candle is always white. This candle represent Christ and the peace he brings. White represents light and purity. This candle is lit on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. So while the other 4 candles are used on a week basis, the fifth candle is only lit the one time.
You are probably wondering why I haven’t addressed the candles’ names yet. I will tell you. They are all different! Seriously. Although the Western Church denominations mostly agree on what the candles represent (note I said mostly), the names of the candles can change significantly. This is because churches and/or denominations decide to focus on different things during this period. We are not going to ignore this part just because everyone does it differently, so let’s dig in!
Traditionally, meaning further back in time, the candles are called:
- Prophecy Candle (purple)
- Bethlehem Candle (purple)
- Shepherd’s Candle (pink)
- Angel’s Candle (purple)
Almost as old as those, the candles are called:
- Hope (purple or blue)
- Faith (purple or blue)
- Joy (pink)
- Peace (purple or blue)
Some traditions take out faith and add in love. To make it complicated, they also move around the order. However, the third candle is always joy.
- Hope (purple or blue)
- Love (purple or blue)
- Joy (pink)
- Peace (purple or blue)
The white candle is easy as it alway’s seems to be called the “Christ Candle.”
There are denominations that do not name their candles at all. This is usually because their Advent season is less structured in regards to keeping the themes consistent from year to year. Also, many churches and/or denominations that got rid of Advent when they split off, are starting to add it back in. However, being more autonomous, they are hesitant to add too much structure and tradition. Whatever their reasons, some places do not have names for their candles at all.
Lest I be negligent, I also need to say that some traditions use all red candles, a mix of colors, all white candles, on and on. I think the most important thing to remember about the Advent season is that it isn’t about the candle colors, or even if you have candles. It’s about celebrating Jesus, growing our relationship with him, and spending time with him. If you are part of a church that has a tradition regarding Advent, I’d recommend using it. Reinforcing, at home, what your church does is a wonderful thing. If your church doesn’t have a tradition, do not fret! Start your own! And although Advent may become a tradition, feel free to change up your candles each year in order to focus on different things. It’s ok. Jesus wants relationship, not tradition.
I hope this short blog helps you understand some of the meaning of the candles. Please comment with questions! And if you would like to celebrate Advent with a group of believers of all Christian faiths, join my Advent group on Facebook!FOLLOW ME