How to Use the Symbols of Advent to Keep Jesus at the Center of the Season

If you ever feel overwhelmed with the commercialization of the holidays, focus on the symbols that surround you which are a reminder of the coming of our Lord Jesus.

Consider Philippians 4:8:

“Finally, brothers, let your minds be filled with everything that is true, everything that is honorable, everything that is upright and pure, everything that we love and admire -- with whatever is good and praiseworthy.”

Fortunately, Advent is brimming with rich symbolism; you just have to know where to look. Here we will outline the most popular Advent symbols and their meaning. Bookmark it so you can find it easily next time you need to be reminded that Jesus is everywhere during the holidays.

advent wreaths and candles

Advent Wreaths and Candles

The wreath is one of the first symbols of Advent that was brought into the home. The Catholic Education Resource Center believes it has Northern European origins which were adapted by Christians when they established the formal Advent wreath traditions that we still practice today.

Every aspect of the wreath is rife with meaning:

  • Evergreens represent eternal life.
  • Laurel mean persecution and suffering.
  • Pine and yew signify immortality.
  • Cedar means strength and healing.
  • Holly’s prickly leaves remind us of the crown of thorns.
  • Pine cones signify death and resurrection.

Even the circular construction represents the eternity of God, for He has no beginning or end.

Pinecone Advent Wreath

Pictured: Pinecone Advent Wreath

Common Traditions

The Advent wreaths and candles are an important centerpiece to the season.  On each Sunday of the four weeks of Advent, we light one Advent candle to mark our progress toward His birth. This could signify that as we move closer to Jesus, our world becomes brighter.

Celebrating with the Family

Collectively, the candles represent the four weeks of Advent. Some believe each represents a 1,000-year epoch from Adam and Eve to Christ’s birth, others think they represent the four centuries of waiting between the prophet Malachi and the birth of Jesus. Individually, the candles take us from prayer and penitence to rejoicing the birth of Jesus.

Many churches light a new Advent Candle each Sunday, but families can integrate a bonding devotional practice into their lives during the season each week as well by gathering for Sunday dinner, lighting an Advent candle, and contemplating its meaning as it related to the birth of Jesus.

  • First Advent Candle - purple -- represents hope
  • Second Advent Candle - purple -- signifies the preparation to receive Christ
  • Third Advent Candle - rose or pink -- speaks of joy
  • Fourth Advent Candle - purple -- stands for love

Following the Blessing of the Wreath, traditionally, the first Advent Candle is lit by the youngest child. The next is lit by the oldest child. The mother lights the candle on the third week and the father lights the fourth candle. Often, this is done at dinner time when the family can gather for devotion and prayer.

Advent calendar

The Advent Calendar

Advent calendars heighten our excitement for the coming of our Lord by giving us a means to count down the days to His arrival. The tradition of the Advent calendar can be traced to the 19th century, when families made a chalk line for every day of December until Christmas Eve. The first known Advent calendar was handmade in 1851. However, in 1908, Gerhard Lang, a German printer, produced the first Advent calendar that best reflects what is used today. That is a large rectangular card with 24 “windows” that you pull open each day through Christmas Eve to reveal an illustration relating to the Christmas season.

Common Traditions

Throughout much of the early 20th century, Advent calendars were exchanged as gifts around the Thanksgiving holiday to prepare for the Christmas countdown. Calendars mark each day with a variety of colorful images and many are accompanied with candy. Some calendars are so beautifully designed that they become collector’s items.

Celebrating with the Family

Bring your family together daily to open a window on the Advent calendar, and then place a nonperishable food item or toiletry in a basket. Once all the windows on the Advent calendar are open, deliver the basket (which should now be filled with goodies) to a food shelf or homeless shelter

The Jesse Tree

The Jesse tree symbolizes Christ’s family tree. It tells about Christ’s ancestry through illustrations that represent the people, prophesy and events leading up to His birth. The Jesse tree is named after the father of King David and references Isaiah 11:1:

“A shoot will spring from the stock of Jesse, a new shoot will grow from his roots.”

Common Traditions

Reflect on the faithfulness of God from the Old Testament to the present day by setting aside time throughout the Advent season to add to the branches of your Jesse tree.

Celebrating with the Family

Bring Jesus to your Christmas tree by turning it into a Jesse tree with ornaments made by your children. All you need is a little imagination and a hot glue gun. Here are a handful of ornament ideas:

  • A tree with fruit or an apple to represent Adam and Eve
  • A rainbow to represent Noah and the Ark
  • A whale to represent Jonah and the Whale
  • A white lily to represent Mary
  • A manger to represent Jesus

nativity-scene

The Nativity Scene

Nativity scenes are beautiful depictions of Christ’s birth, and can range from simple and homemade to priceless masterpieces. Nativities may honor the intimacy of just Mary, Jesus and Joseph at the manger, or depict a glorious celebration replete with angels, wise men, children and animals.

Common Traditions

Many Catholic churches host live nativity scenes featuring actors and live animals. These can be part of a church pageant or an outdoor display.

Family Traditions

Do you have some glue, magic marker, and construction paper? Then you have enough materials to create a Nativity scene with your children.

Or, you can buy a nativity scene and add a piece to it each week throughout Advent, with the grand finale of placing Jesus in the manger on Christmas Eve. Accompany this celebration by singing “Away in the Manger” and reading Matthew 1:18-23.

“This is how Jesus Christ came to be born. His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph; but before they came to live together she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being an upright man and wanting to spare her disgrace, decided to divorce her informally. He had made up his mind to do this when suddenly the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, 'Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because she has conceived what is in her by the Holy Spirit.

“She will give birth to a son and you must name him Jesus, because he is the one who is to save his people from their sins. Now all this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: Look! The virgin is with child and will give birth to a son whom they will call Emmanuel, a name which means 'God-is-with-us.’”

Themes of the Weeks of Advent

Each week of Advent represents our growing faith that Jesus is coming. It takes us on a journey from hope to celebration. Here’s a very brief overview, but check out our post, Themes of the Weeks of Advent, for more details.

  • The First Week of Advent focuses on hope, with a special Sunday church service and prayers that fill our spirit with the hope that Christ will come to us.
  • The Second Week of Advent focuses on preparation; we are called to prepare for the coming of the Lord.
  • The Third Week of Advent is all about joy. It’s known as Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete means “rejoice” in Latin.
  • The Fourth Week of Advent is focused on God’s love as we prepare for the Good news.

Anytime you feel bombarded by Santa Claus and dollar signs, visit this post to remind yourself that Advent has its own symbols, too. And they’ve been around millennia longer than Black Friday. By recognizing and embracing these symbols, we can give ourselves a break from the near-deafening noise to buy, buy, buy and focus again on the real reason for season.

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