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Advent is a preparatory celebration for Christmas, which can last four to six weeks. Though often associated with Roman Catholicism, numerous Christian denominations observe Advent in some fashion. These include many Protestant groups and Eastern Orthodox groups. Advent candles, typically used to light the wreaths that many people have at home for this “preparation” for Christ’s birth, can vary according to denomination or individual practice.
In Roman Catholicism, Advent candles are four in number, and can easily be purchased at various locations, sometimes even through churches. They can be long tapers or shorter candles, depending on preference and stability of the wreath into which they are placed. Color of the candles can be very important.
Roman Catholics may use purple or royal blue for the three of the candles and a rose colored candle for the fourth. Purple connects to the color of Lent and reminds celebrants of the entire life of Christ, from birth to crucifixion. In other churches, purple may be a symbol of repentance too, though it isn’t uncommon for many churches to use blue.
Lighting of the colored candles occurs each night with prayers, though some people use the wreath only once a week. Typically, the three purple or blue candles are lit in the first three weeks of Advent, and then the rose one is lit on the last week prior to Christmas. Some churches and individuals vary this. Unlike the idea of repentance, rose-colored candles typically symbolize joy and expectation in the birth of Christ.
Instead of focusing on repentance or Lent, some Christian traditions have different takes on the symbolism of the Advent Candles. In certain Protestant denominations, where five candles may be used instead, each week’s candle represents some idea or theme. The first candle is the candle of hope, and the others are the candles of the way, joy, and peace. The fifth candle represents the light of Christ and is lit on Christmas day or Christmas Eve. Unlike the other Advent candles, this one sits directly in the center of the wreath.
Some people choose completely different colored Advent candles and may celebrate the preparatory weeks before Christmas in a more secular fashion. Three to four white candles and a red one are a popular variation on colors, or red and green candles may be used instead. Tradition and symbolism can really be up to the individual family that celebrates Advent.
In most Christian groups that commemorate this time, families may gather together each night to light the Advent wreath, and they may choose various prayers or scripture readings to read each night. Other people simply light the Advent candles once a week. Many Christians feel that this focus on the religious aspect of the Christmas holidays helps keep people in touch with the spiritual importance of Christmas.