When it comes to altar flowers during Advent, less is more, in that flowers and floral arrangements should be used sparingly during this time. While each denomination and, in some cases, the local churches within any denomination have their own ways of decorating during the Advent season, flowers are generally red or white poinsettias and are never atop the actual altar. The Advent wreath is a more common plant-based decoration during this time leading up to Christmas.
Advent in the church
Advent is celebrated on the four Sundays directly before Christmas. The word "Advent" comes from the Latin word adventus, which means "coming," as in the coming of Christ. The first and second Sundays of Advent focus on hope and preparation, respectively. Gaudete, or the third Sunday of Advent, has joy or peace as its theme, and the fourth Sunday of Advent is about love or adoration.
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There are no specific colors or types of floral designs specified in religious texts regarding Advent and that are recognized by all Christian religions equally. In fact, many churches, such as the Church of England, are more likely to display greenery than fresh flowers during these four Sundays.
Colors of advent flowers
Some organizations, such as the Episcopal church, focus on specific colors to celebrate the Advent season. In some of these churches, reds, greens, and whites are the colors of floral decoration for Advent through Christmas. Beautiful flowers, such as white lilies, white or red roses and white amaryllis are displayed along with greenery, holly and evergreen boughs. For Christmas day, any colorful flowers are usually swapped out for all white flowers.
Some Episcopal churches decorate the Advent season with shades of white, beige and light to dark blue. White lilies and white mums are often displayed along with some greenery and white birch stems to go along with the general color scheme of the church altar area. Flower arrangements featuring these colors may be displayed in areas around the altar.
Moderation is key to the number and colors of any flowers used in a church sanctuary during Advent.
White or red poinsettias are often used on their own in many churches and sometimes as parts of flower arrangements. In the Catholic church, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, or GIRM, states that moderation is important in decorating the altar area. Any flowers used should be placed around the altar and never atop it. By comparison, during Lent, it's even forbidden to decorate the altar with flowers.
Advent wreaths and candles
Churches that minimize the use of altar flowers for Advent are more likely to display an Advent wreath along with four candles. Each candle represents one of the four Sundays, with the first Sunday including the first lit candle and so on. The candle colors are usually purple and pink and may include a fifth candle in white specifically for Christmas Day. The first, second and fourth candles are usually purple. The Gaudete candle, sometimes called the shepherd's candle, is pink, symbolizing joy.
Add a fifth candle in all white to symbolize Jesus' purity and birth on Christmas Day.
Some churches use a fifth candle, called the Christ candle, for Christmas Day service. The white symbolizes purity, light and holiness. The fifth candle goes at the center of the Advent wreath candle arrangement. Churches that don't follow a specific guideline for flower colors may choose flower arrangements that pick up on the hues of the Advent candles.
No matter what the organization, flowers around the altar area are usually kept to a minimum so they are not the focus, allowing congregants to tune in to the importance of each Advent Sunday's message.