Re-imagining the Advent Candles

During the season of Advent 2003, I was eight months pregnant with our son Mack, who was born January 16, 2004. Our daughter, Izzy, had just turned six and was dressed as an angel. She had just participated in the Christmas Eve children’s pageant at our church.

She leaned against me drawing on a Little Episcopalians notepad. Gold tinsel from her halo tickled my nose, and we smiled at each other when Mack moved inside me and she could feel him through my dress. “That is so weird, Mamma!” she giggled and my husband, Christian, smiled.

He Died at Age Nine

There is no way we could have known in that magical season of 2003, in anticipation of Mack’s birth, that he would die suddenly nine years later on New Year’s Eve 2012.

As a bereaved Mom, I know that I am not alone in approaching the Advent and Christmas season with a mixture of joy and sadness. A multitude of us manage the season with an empty chair at the family dining table. We know in our bones what it means to live in the already, but not yet.

When someone dies that we long to be with, the absence and presence of them is profound. We feel it in every ornament, carol, in every meal, and family tradition throughout the season.

How to  Re-imagine Advent Candles

Over the years, I have adapted some traditions to visibly reflect the absence and presence of Mack and other family members who have died. I have worked with freelance artists on sites like Etsy to create Advent candles that include the traditional purple and rose, but also marbled with black and white.

I have shared this design with other bereaved parents. They immediately appreciate the mixture of colors that represent the truth of our lives: It is joy and sadness; it is light and dark. And somehow this visible representation is an opening that helps to give permission for all of us to acknowledge both the absence and presence, the joy and sadness, of the season.

New Names for Advent Candles

The Rev. Fleming Rutledge wrote extensively about Advent and reclaiming the second coming of Jesus in her book Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ. She and others support a return to a 7-week Advent beginning after All Saints Sunday. She also commented on re-imagining the Advent candles in an article reviewing her book:

“I have personally been present when new names for the candles of the Four Sundays of Advent have been proposed along the lines of hope, love, joy, and peace. This presents quite a contrast with the medieval Advent themes of death, judgment, heaven, and hell – in that order!”

Of course, I quickly need to add that I am not recommending a return to medieval practices. But I believe there is room to grow Advent into its full rigor.

The addition of Blue Christmas services in some churches recognize the need for authenticity. The services vary, but the common theme is to gather on December 21, the longest night of the year, to offer prayers and light candles in recognition of the heavy stuff we carry: death, relationships, illness, addiction.

Toxic Positivity

The services are invitations to acknowledge all of life, it all belongs, and it can be a relief from what has been termed “toxic positivity.” Toxic Positivity is defined by the Psychology Group as “the excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations. The process of toxic positivity results in the denial, minimization, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience.”

As the marbled candles so effortlessly swirl together the colors of the holy season, may we give ourselves and one another permission to feel more than one emotion! We are allowed to grieve those who are so poignantly absent at this time of year. And, may we also allow ourselves to relish the gift of those present.

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Elizabeth Brady

Elizabeth's son Mack died suddenly on New Year's Eve 2012. Elizabeth teaches at Penn State and her essays on learning to live with loss can also be read on The Compassionate Friends (TCF), Modern Loss, She has participated on the panel "A Flower Picked Too Soon" at several national TCF conferences. Elizabeth served on the content advisory board for the Public Television documentary "Speaking Grief" that seeks to help us all get better at grief. (

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