Lighting the First Candle: Memories of the Advent Wreath or Adventskranz

Advent Wreath Adventskranz

Today is December 1st, and that fact alone makes me happy not only because it means that I can finally turn into a “Christmas-freak” without being weird but also because it means that in a few days I can light the first candle.

If you are wondering, ‘the first candle of what?’, it probably means that you didn’t spend any time in a Germanic country around Christmas time.  Let me explain.

The “Advent Wreath” (couronne de l’avent in French or Adventskanz in German) is a Christian tradition, that symbolizes the passage of the four weeks of Advent, that is, the time before Christmas. This tradition has several symbols: the crown (can be seen as an infinite circle) represents God’s endless love, the evergreen leaves represent the hope of eternal life, and the lights are, of course, a symbol of hope, peace, and salvation. Many people today are unaware of these symbols but rejoice at the sight of a wreath because it may bring them many memories of Christmas and childhood.

The purpose of the Advent Wreath is to gather the family so you spend quality time together and light up a candle each of the Sundays preceding Christmas. The first candle is lit on the first Sunday of the month before Christmas. The second is lit on the second Sunday and so on until the last Sunday before Christmas. At this time the four lit candles usher in joy and excitement right in time for the big D-Day… or shall I say C-Day!

Photo Courtesy: Anne-Laure Dreyfus-Coutinho

Lighting the candles was always memorable and meaningful in my family. We come from Alsace, a part of France that carries a special heritage – one torn between France and Germany over the course of many wars. German culture is still very present in Alsace, even though most people my generation only speak French. For me Alsace is the best of both worlds. As I come from a big family (we are 6 kids), Sundays are very special for us the entire year long. Even though we no longer live in Alsace, the rule is that if you are in the Belgium, you have to be at my parents’ house for Sunday at lunch time, to share a meal with the family. I say “must”, but it’s not an obligation, it’s rather a tradition that we all follow because these Sunday moments are our sanctuary of love and calm moments – a break in the storm of the week. As you can imagine, this means that they take a very special meaning during Advent, when we can light up candles, put on Christmas songs and eat sweets.

I have plenty of good memories linked to the Advent wreath. As a kid, I remember proudly accompanying my mom to workshops to hand create wreaths for ourselves and for others. Two years ago, when my sister was sick, I made her one because I couldn’t picture the thought of her living room table without a wreath on it and I made sure she got a very special one. Another memory I have is from the time when my sister’s fiancé spent his first Christmas season with us. After bringing coffee to the table, as thoughtful as he was, he started to light the candles on our wreath not only without waiting for everyone to be gathered around the table but also intending to light all four of them, even though we were only on the first advent’s Sunday. A big “noooooo” came out very spontaneously from the few of us who were there and saw his – in slow motion in my memory – movement to go and light the second candle. We all laughed very well after explaining to the poor shocked guy what he was about to do wrong.


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These moments are very special to me and represent all the positive values I cherish of family, love, and joy. Some families take the time to pray together when lighting a candle, and some families sing. A few simply get together for coffee and chitchat like in the afternoons for “Kaffee und Kuchen” as we say in Germany, or what the Swedes call “fikka” or the Brits, “tea time”; a time to enjoy delicious cakes and the smell of warm sweets and coffee. For example, this Sunday we have a caffe-skype appointment with my dad who is in Africa so we can  light up the first candle together and officially declare the Christmas season open.

As we grew up in Germany (I spent 10 years of my childhood in Germany. For my siblings this means respectively 8, 6, 4 and 2 years, enough to make an impact on our cultural references), we adopted German Christmas traditions. The songs we love the most are traditional Christmas songs in German. The food that reminds us most of Christmas-time are German cinnamon stars or gingerbread with icing. And of all the traditions, the Adventskranz or the Advent Wreath is certainly one of them!

To conclude, I hope to have spread some of my Christmas-cheer to you. Here are a few pictures of how a Christmas wreath is made from a workshop I recently attended.

Photo Credit: Anne-Laure Dreyfus-Coutinho

Note: The featured image of the wreath with white flowers was made by the author’s sister, Sophie.

Anne-Laure Dreyfus-Coutinho grew up in a Franco-German environment. She has been living in Brussels for the last 12 years where whe works for an European trade body. Anne-Laure’s husband is Franco-Portuguese and they share their lives with a cute 5-year old adopted Border Collie named Lucky. You can follow her on twitter: @AnneLaureDreyf


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