The Advent Wreath is a ring
of four candles set in a batch of greenery
with a fifth candle in the center
. It is used by most Christian
denominations as a physical symbol and representation of the joy
of the birth of Christ
in the following month.
Although the tradition originated from a pagan philosophy in which lighting candles would draw the Sun back after the long, cold winter to its return on the winter solstice, these wreaths are now nearly exclusively used as part of Christian tradition today. Candles are of course celebrations of Light, and it was easy to make the phase from celebrating the Sun to celebrating the Son of God, who has also been named the Light of the World.
One candle is lighted each Sunday before advent, the growing light symbolizing the nearing of Christmas and the Christ Child's birth. The final, center candle (often called the Christ Candle) is lit either on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day to symbolize the waiting is over and the Christ Child has been born.
Advent wreaths are easy to construct, or buy. The easiest ones involve buying a ring of foam from a craft store and sticking candles in it and surrounding it with greens. Simple brass rings with four candle-prongs can also be bought for a slightly more elegant look. Elaborate, artificial wreaths with fake greenery can also be bought, but the use of natural plants has always seemed so much more fitting to me.
Evergreen plants are used for the surrounding greenery. Many people use pine or fir branches. However, some also use holly leaves. Yew branches also work wonderfully, and retain their shape and color when dried, so replacing them every few days isn't needed. (Yew was always the personal favorite in my house growing up.)
Colors of candles are oft-debated, and you will never get a single answer on ]what's "right". Simple natural wax candles which are usually an off-white to tan are appropriate. Light blue candles are common as well. Many traditions use deep purple candles for the whole wreath. It is also very often done that three candles are deep purple and the other is a rose pink. In this case, purple candles are lit the first two weeks, the pink the third, and the final purple the last. The center candle is always white.
The four candles are said in nearly all traditions to stand for four virtues. One is celebrated each week. First is Hope, second Joy, third Love (hence the pink candle, when used), and Peace. Alternately, the candles are the Prophecy candle, the Bethlehem Candle, the Shepherds Candle, and Angels Candle. The center candle is always the Christ Candle.
A very common song that is sung while lighting an Advent wreath is "Light One Candle":
Light one candle for hope,
one bright candle for hope,
he brings hope to every heart,
he comes! He comes!"
This is sung each week when the new candle is lit, replacing "Hope" with "Joy" "Love" and "Peace" respectively.