Advent is a solemn season of preparation for Christmas, and many local Christians take advantage of the season as they turn their thoughts and actions toward Bethlehem, the manger and Jesus Christ.

Churches have tried to retain the mood of reflection and preparation through scripture, music and prayer, and many are celebrating Advent with special services and symbols.The word Advent means "coming." During the sixth and seventh centuries, it was a season of preparation for baptismal candidates who were then baptized on Jan. 6, the Epiphany.

Today, the Advent wreath, a ring with four candles in the outer circle, is used by many churches. One candle is lit each Sunday, starting with the Sunday nearest Nov. 30.

The symbolic Advent wreath includes evergreen boughs, representing the life that is found in Christ. The circle of the wreath suggests eternity. And the candles as well as their colors have different symbolism depending upon the denomination.

The lighting of the candles deepens the understanding of the Advent truth. The beauty of the wreath in its growing brightness of life is increased steadily until the appearing of the Great Light of Christ.

Kathleen French, parish member at Cathedral of the Madeleine, explained the symbolism behind these objects and colors.

"The Advent wreath is in a circle to symbolize the Christ's glorious victory - that `death is swallowed up in victory.' The purple candles symbolize a time for preparing ourselves."

On the first two Sundays, two purple candles are lit. On the third Sunday, which hits midway in the Advent, it's a pink candle. Pink signifies a time of joyous awakening.

A fifth candle - a large, white one - is sometimes used. Representing Christ, it is lit on Christmas.

After Advent is over, the Cathedral's wreath continues to be used during the Christmas season - but with red and white candles.

Typically, families use their own Advent wreaths as a centerpiece. Before the evening meal, the family gathers around it and the youngest child, or another member of the family, lights the appropriate candle or candles before prayers are said.

The Rev. Donald H. Baird said that the First Presbyterian Church, 12 C St., displays an Advent wreath with three purple candles, one pink one plus a large white one in the center. The purple candles represent faith, hope and love. Each leads to the other, but love is a byproduct, not a goal in and of itself. The fourth candle is pink and represents the "ultimate conclusion of joy." The center candle is the Christ candle.

One child in the worship usually lights the candles, he said, accompanied by the reading of part of the Christ story, singing and prayer.

"We also give miniature Advent candles so members of the family can take part. Usually the smallest one in the family lights the candle."

At the Holladay United Church of Christ, the Rev. Galen E. Russell III explained that on the first Sunday of Advent, the prophecy candle (red) is lit; on the second Sunday, the Bethlehem candle (blue); on the third, the shepherd's candle (green); and on the fourth, the angel's candle (yellow). On Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, the Christ candle (white) is lit.

"The lighting of the candle or candles always happens in the worship service on Sunday morning. The ceremony is done by lay persons, typically family or a young couple. They read from the Bible, light the candle, and then everybody joins in a prayer."