Advent — the four weeks leading up to Christmas — begins this year, in 2020 on Sunday, 29 November.
The Advent season is a four week period before Christmas that celebrates the anticipation and coming of Jesus Christ, the Messiah. The origin of “advent” is from the Latin word adventus which simply translates “coming” or “arrival”. Not only is the Christian meaning for preparation and celebration of the coming of Jesus Christ, his birth at Christmas, but also to celebrate the new life when someone accepts Jesus Christ as their Savior, and lastly, the anticipation of Jesus returning again.
There are beautiful and rich traditions behind the celebration of Advent. Let’s take a deeper look at the focus and themes of each week of Advent and some of the traditions celebrated around the world during the Advent season.
The History and Origin of Advent
No one really knows when Advent first began.
Originally, Advent did not have anything to do with Christmas. Historians believe that in the 4th and 5th Centuries, Advent was a period Christians used to prepare themselves for baptism.
Back then, the festival of the Epiphany, which is always held 12 days after Christmas to mark the Three Wise Men’s meeting the baby Jesus, was when many Christians were baptised. In the 40 days before the Epiphany, those to be baptised carried out penance (asked for forgiveness of sins), prayed and fasted: this period was called Advent.
Advent was not linked to Christmas until the 6th Century, when Roman Christians began to use the event as a preparation to celebrate Jesus’s birth.
In the late 400s, St. Gregory of Tours wrote in the History of the Franks that St. Perpetuus decreed a three week fast from the time of the feast of St. Martin until Chrismas. Whether this was a new custom being instated or an existing observance being enforced. In 567 at the second Council of Yours, monks began to practice fasting on the first of December through Christmas day.
While many Greek Orthodox and Eastern Catholics still observe a 40 day fast, that begins November 15th, Western Christianity, specifically the Roman Catholic Church, began to observe the season of Advent from the fourth Sunday before Christmas through Christmas Eve. Today, many Protestant sects of Christianity have begun to incorporate Advent traditions into their Sunday services. Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, and other denominations have begun to observe the traditional Advent customs.
The Four Weeks of Advent
The four Sundays of Advent each have a specific theme or focus. The purpose of each theme is to spend time reflecting on the true meaning of the season – the life of Jesus Christ. The goal should be to come before God with a sincere heart and to worship Jesus Christ. To help the observation of these weeks, many churches led their congregation through Advent Readings. This tradition includes the reading of Scriptures that reflect the theme of each week. Whether in a traditional church or at home with your family, these Bible verses are a great way to reflect on the promise of the Messiah both yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
Week 1: Hope (or promise)
Isaiah 9:2, 6-7:
“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness, a light has dawned…For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.”
Week 2: Preparation (or waiting or prophecy)
“A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’”
Week 3: Joy (or peace)
Matthew 2:10-11, “When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.”
Week 4: Love (or adoration)
John 3:16-19, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.”
Rooted in a tradition that spans centuries of church history, the modern version of the Advent calendar has been around since the nineteenth century. Emerging from a Protestant Christian context, Advent calendars carry an underlying spiritual message of anticipation and hope. By helping us remember and reflect on the coming of Jesus Christ, Advent calendars can be a valuable aid for Christian families. While many outside the Christian tradition enjoy their yearly countdown calendar (and its hidden treats), the meaning behind the Advent calendar remains steeped in religious themes. More than just a countdown, marking the days of Advent serves as a time of spiritual reflection and preparation.
Instead of strictly following the four-week Advent period, which can start anywhere from November 27 to December 3, an Advent calendar typically begins on December 1 and counts down the days until Christmas. Advent calendars now come in many forms, but the tradition began simply enough when German families in the mid-nineteenth century started counting the days until Christmas by tallying chalk marks on a door or wall. Variations of the countdown included lighting a candle or hanging a religious picture for each day leading up to Christmas Eve. Some families began making homemade Advent calendars to accompany their countdown and by the early 1900s, a few publishing companies and newspapers had produced simple printed calendars.
There are many unique styles of Advent calendars. Some are overtly Christian while others play to the more secularized and generic aspects of the holiday season. For families who want to keep their focus on Christ during the Christmas season, using a nativity-themed Advent calendar is an excellent choice. Other calendars highlight Bible stories that tell the history of God’s people leading up to Jesus. The spiritual focus of these Advent calendars is built right into the countdown, often in the form of short written devotionals that accompany the calendar. These types of calendars are an easy way to help families start an edifying Advent tradition.
There were many folk traditions centred around the celebration of Advent.
In England, poor women, would carry two dolls representing Jesus and his mother Mary. People who were shown the dolls were expected to give the women a halfpenny coin, or else be cursed with bad luck.
In Normandy, France, farmers would employ children to run through fields and light bushels of straw. The tradition was aimed at driving out vermin from the fields.
In Rome, bagpipe players – pifferari – would walk through the city and play at shrines to Mary and Jesus. According to Italian tradition, shepherds played bagpipes when they were introduced to the infant Jesus after his birth.
Advent wreaths, holding four candles, which are lit one-by-one on Advent Sundays, are also used to mark the approach of Christmas. Some wreaths hold five candles – the fifth being lit during the first mass held on Christmas Day.
The most recent traditions are Advent calendars. These colourful decorations, kept in homes and outside churches, feature doors which are opened on each day of Advent. Behind the door is a festive or religious picture – and for the luckier a piece of chocolate.
Advent Wreath and Candles
The Advent wreath first appeared in Germany in 1839. A Lutheran minister working at a mission for children created a wreath out of the wheel of a cart. He placed twenty small red candles and four large white candles inside the ring. The red candles were lit on weekdays and the four white candles were lit on Sundays.
Eventually, the Advent wreath was created out of evergreens, symbolizing everlasting life in the midst of winter and death as the evergreen is continuously green. The circle reminds us of God’s unending love and the eternal life He makes possible.
Advent candles shine brightly in the midst of darkness, symbolizing and reminding us that Jesus came as Light into our dark world. The candles are often set in a circular Advent wreath. In Scandinavia, Lutheran churches light a candle each day of December; by Christmas, they have twenty-four candles burning. Another Advent candle option is a single candle with twenty-four marks on the side–the candle is lit each day and allowed to melt down to the next day’s mark.
The most common Advent candle tradition, however, involves four candles around the wreath. A new candle is lit on each of the four Sundays before Christmas. Each candle represents something different, although traditions vary. Often, the first, second, and fourth candles are purple; the third candle is rose-colored. Sometimes all the candles are red; in other traditions, all four candles are blue or white. Occasionally, a fifth white candle is placed in the middle of the wreath and is lit on Christmas Day to celebrate Jesus’ birth.
The advent candles correspond to the themes of each week of advent. Families and church congregations begin lighting a candle on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, and they light another candle each subsequent Sunday.
- The first candle symbolizes hope and is called the “Prophet’s Candle.” The prophets of the Old Testament, especially Isaiah, waited in hope for the Messiah’s arrival.
- The second candle represents faith and is called “Bethlehem’s Candle.” Micah had foretold that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, which is also the birthplace of King David.
- The third candle symbolizes joy and is called the “Shepherd’s Candle.” To the shepherd’s great joy, the angels announced that Jesus came for humble, unimportant people like them, too. In liturgy, the color rose signifies joy.
- The fourth candle represents peace and is called the “Angel’s Candle.” The angels announced that Jesus came to bring peace–He came to bring people close to God and to each other again.
- The (optional) fifth candle represents light and purity and is called “Christ’s candle.” It is placed in the middle and is lit on Christmas Day.
The Jesse Tree and Other Advent Traditions
Most people who enjoy the Jesse Tree tradition with their families today focus on God’s thread of redemption through the Old Testament, leading up to the birth of Christ – the events, from Adam to Christ, that shows God’s hand in saving His people. The Jesse Tree tradition originated in the medieval church in the form of carvings, stained glass windows, or illuminated manuscripts illustrating (literally) Isaiah 11:1: “And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots.” Typically, the objects centered on a tree culminated with the figure of Christ and/or Mary, with branches showing the ancestors of Christ as listed in the gospel of Matthew. Some of these are illustrated through ornaments symbolizing: Creation (a globe), Abraham and Isaac (a ram in bushes), Ruth (a sheaf of wheat), and the prophecy of Jesus’ birthplace (a building or village). Each day an Old Testament Scripture is read and a symbol is added to the Jesse Tree.
In much of the Spanish-speaking world, a custom called “Posadas” is practiced. “Posadas” means “shelter” or “lodging,” and it is done from December 16-24. A group of people re-enact Joseph and Mary’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. They plan a route and travel from house to house, asking for lodging. Each home plays the role of “innkeeper” and refuses to host them. At the last house, everyone is invited inside for prayer and refreshments.
Santa Lucia (or St. Lucy) is done on the morning of December 13. The oldest daughter in the house dresses in a white robe with a red sash, and she wears a wreath with lighted candles on her head. She carries a breakfast of coffee, gingerbread cookies, and saffron buns to her parent’s bedroom. The younger daughters follow the eldest, carrying a single candle. The brothers, called “star boys,” wear tall, pointed hats.
Advent Traditions Around the World
The so-called Rorate Masses served during this time carry an important symbolic meaning. They start before dawn, and the faithful attending bring candles or lamps with them to the church.
Another Advent tradition was to cut off a branchlet from a cherry tree on 4 December, Saint Barbara’s Day, and place it in a vase of water. According to the tradition, the cherry tree branchlet was supposed to flower before Christmas.
We must not forget about Saint Nicholas’ Day, which is also part of the Advent season. On this day, we commemorate Saint Nicholas of Myra, a Christian bishop known mainly for his generosity. In most European countries, his feast day is celebrated on 6 December. On the eve of Saint Nicholas’ Day, children prepare for this holiday by polishing their boots, putting them out and waiting for presents from Saint Nicholas. Saint Nicholas in known under different names in different countries and languages. He is called Sankt Nikolaus in German, Sinterklaas in Dutch, Miklavž in Slovenian and San Nicola in Italian.
Other unique traditions include Advent concerts, but it is the Christmas markets which are probably the most popular attraction today, with their aroma of Christmas punch, mulled wine and other treats contributing to the Christmas spirit.
In European capitals must be open Christmas markets.
In European countries, preparations for Christmas are quite similar. Decorating Christmas trees and homes, baking cookies and other treats, visiting Christmas markets and gift-giving culminating on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day—all these activities are common traditions of the time before Christmas. However, in Italy for example, people exchange Christmas gifts also on 6 January, because children believe that on this day, a witch named Befana brings them presents.
In the US and Canada, stockings are hung above the fireplace to be filled with presents from Santa Claus. Often, families visit and help the poor and homeless by giving them gifts and food. In North America, Midnight Mass is celebrated on Christmas Eve, traditionally at midnight, when Christmas Eve gives way to Christmas Day. Christmas day is celebrated on 25 December with lots of presents.
People in Mexico and other Central and South American countries celebrate Advent by dressing up in costumes and participating in traditional musical processions. In these countries Christianity plays an important role, which is why everything from the preparations during the Advent season to the climax of the Christmas holidays relates to this religion’s teachings. For people in South America, Advent and the Christmas season are for time spent with their families. Together, they celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus, also specifically honouring his parents Joseph and Mary.
Christians in China light their homes with beautiful paper lanterns during the Advent season. Even their Christmas trees are decorated with paper flowers, chains and lanterns. Santa Claus is called Dun Che Lao Ren in Chinese.
As for the time of Advent and Christmas in Australia, it is while children are enjoying summer holidays. Even though their traditions are similar to those of the rest of the world, they celebrate a warmer, more summery variation of Christmas, for example on the beach. Just imagine that!
Christmas Traditions: Advent in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
The Advent tradition is a religious celebration in preparation for the arrival, or “advent” of the Christ Child (das Christkind) on his “official” birthday, the 25th day of December. The Advent season and its celebration have changed over the years from a more serious, somber character (including giving up things, as for Lent) to one of a more joyous nature — including such treats as chocolate-filled Advent calendars. The four weeks leading up to Christmas Eve are a happy time – at least for those not too caught up in the increasingly hectic and commercial aspects of this time of the year.
The Advent or Christmas calendar began as a plain card with paper backing. On the face were 24 windows, that when opened revealed various Christmas symbols and scenes. These windows or small doors were to be opened, one each day, over the 24 days leading up to Heiligabend or Christmas Eve. The largest window is still reserved for December 24th and usually offers a view of the Nativity.
Today the most popular version of this calendar is the candy-filled variety. Instead of mere pictures, the windows open to reveal pieces of chocolate shaped to resemble stars, fir trees, and other Christmas symbols.
There are also Advent calendars online. See our own online Advent Calendar with Christmas Facts starting on December 1.
What’s a Schwibbogen? It’s yet another German Christmas custom known as the candle arch. Like some other German Christmas decor, it comes from Saxony and the Ore Mountains. See the German Christmas Candle Arch: der Schwibbogen for more.
Other Christmas Customs
Of course, there are many other Germanic Christmas contributions. For instance, it is a real treat to wander through Germany’s annual Christmas markets — the most famous being Nuremberg’s Christkindlesmarkt — to see, taste, and smell all the Christmas goodies, from Lebkuchen (gingerbread) to Stollen (fruit bread). Marzipan, made with almonds and sugar, is also a German treat. And the aroma of Glühwein (“glow wine”) will warm you up even before you actually drink this German version of hot mulled wine.
Beyond the four weeks of Advent, there is much more to tell about Christmas in German-speaking Europe. We haven’t even touched on Krampus, Knecht Ruprecht, Barbarazweig, and the numerous other fascinating elements of Weihnachten. That’s why we have the links below to pages where you can find out more. Frohe Weihnachten!
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Categories: Ethnic traditions