Johann Wichern’s Forgotten Advent Wreath: German Christmas Rites in America

With an Epilogue from President Harry S. Truman

From my Writing Room

Copyright © 2020 by Uwe Bahr

For many years, while living in Florida and Georgia, I have wondered why the paganic Christmas Tree (German: Weihnachtsbaum) and even Santa Claus (der Weihnachtsmann) have adapted a widespread popularity in the US, but not the equally traditional advent wreath. This observation is remarkable, all the more so because this particular wreath (Adventskranz) of German origin has a classic clerical history – as opposed to Santa and the illuminated tree used in nearly every living room nowadays in Western Europe and large parts of America as well.

German Advent Wreath in Blairsville, Georgia, December 2020

Whereas a decorated tree was already known in the days of the old Egyptians and then merely revived in a modern style by Germans during the time of the Holy Roman Empire[1] not even 300 years ago, the advent wreath has a much shorter history. Social reformer and evangelic-Lutheran theologist Johann Hinrich Wichern, one of the founders of the home mission movement and initiator of a rescue work for neglected children and adolescents in the northern German city of Hamburg, invented the wreath in 1839. Originally assembled with a candle for every day in December and larger candles for every Sunday, it later became a four-candle wreath only with the first candle lit on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Eve. This occasion is hence called the first of advent, followed in a consecutive order until the fourth candle is ready to light on the last Sunday before Christmas.

The original wreath from 1839 was intended to serve as a symbolic lifebelt for stranded, poor young Hamburgers, of which many where orphans. Wichern provided shelter for them in a way that was unique back then: For the first time, destitute were not kept in closed shelters penned up in a single, large room, but just a few at a time living in smaller houses instead, enjoying generous liberties such as freedom of action.

In light of grim developments in our present world I would like to include the following true piece of history in my little Christmas story – directed in particular at those Americans deeply lost with the term “socialism” that is permanently thrown at them these days by scheming gull-catchers from the political right:

The Hanseatic city of Hamburg rose to a rather flourishing place after the Napoleonic wars, but only twenty percent of the inhabitants profited from the wealth. For decades the church ignored to see the misery of the poor and their necessities as a society of the proletariat, which led to a widespread renunciation from religious services on part of the destitute populace. At the time of our story, only eight percent of the Hamburgers received the communion compared to nearly hundred percent in the preceding century. Already then the society had reached a point of secularization. Johann Wichern exhorted the churches to look closely at the plight of the poor and to attend to the social crises.

In order to finance his mission, our theologist, himself born into a family of poverty and certainly not equipped with socialistic ambitions, successfully called upon the Christian conscience of the wealthy merchants and demanded their help in supporting those in need financially [2].

As for our little artifact, it took several decades until the wreath went on its triumphal procession through German lands. After World War I, in the early 20’s, Christian youth associations significantly contributed to the propagation. A catholic church in Koeln (Cologne) was first to display the wreath during service in 1925. In Austria, it expanded not before the end of World War II.

When I grew up – in the 1960’s and 1970’s in the (please note!) socialistic part of Germany – the advent wreath was ubiquitous on East German kitchen tables like knife and fork for dinner; not a single household and family home have I witnessed without the Christian relict on display. In retrospect, these historic facts are especially mind-blowing to me: All the other Christian holidays were legally observed in the midst of a socialist, totalitarian regime as well – with stores closed, people home from work and fully compensated for Good Friday, Easter, Pentecost (both Sunday and Monday), first Christmas Day (December 25), and second Christmas Day as well (December 26). These were all legal church holidays back then, and they still are in Germany to date besides some more non-church holidays.

So, the advent wreath never really made it from across the Atlantic to the United States, probably for reasons of its delayed publicity in its homeland and the fact that the bulk of Germans had arrived in America long before. But it’s paganic brother, the Christmas tree, befell an enormous popularity in next to no time after German immigrants had brought the tradition with them to Pennsylvania as early as the 1830’s.

Notes:

[1] Though German culture, tradition and history hark back more than a thousand years, German people living in medieval times were at loose ends with the term “Germany.” From the 13th Century on, only single German states, dukedoms, baronies, bishoprics, and fiefdoms with autonomous rulers existed in a loose complex of territories and a subordinate emperor with only limited fullness of power. The Holy Roman Empire was neither holy nor Roman, defined by 17th century historian Samuel Puffendorf as an “unclassifiable body comparable to a monster” (see Robert B. Asprey: Frederick the Great, XV). – A German nation state as such did not exist prior to the formation of the Second German Empire, founded by Otto von Bismarck in 1871.

[2] In view of the current (early December, 2020) debate in Congress about another stimulus package, it might be reasonable to call wealthy corporations to account in the corona crises instead of granting them immunity through liability protection and shuffling off the entire financial burden to the ordinary taxpayer and future generations. Yes, following the same principle of Johann Hinrich Wichern in 1839 toward the super-rich: Would that be foolishly called “socialism”, so be it. President Harry S. Truman was a Democrat, but history remembers his words, spoken in 1952: “Socialism is their [the Republicans] name for almost anything that helps the people” (Quote: Harry S. Truman, 12 October 1952, Syracuse, NY). As we can see, it was not that much different back then.

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