This past Sunday began our first season of the Christian church year; the season of Advent.
The word “advent” is derived from a larger Latin word which means arrival and, like so many before us, our anticipation of the arrival of our Savior (or Messiah), Jesus and, ultimately, the celebration of his birth is what this season is all about.
It is a season of 4 weeks in length leading up to Christmas day. Each week, there is a focus on a specific attribute of the Holiday, namely Hope, Peace, Joy and Love. And so we’ll do likewise. In the upcoming weeks, we’ll take a look at each of these pieces and flesh them out a bit so that we can, perhaps, maintain or even grow our appreciation of this amazing gift that is Christmas.
In anticipation of that, however, how about if we begin by reviewing the season of Advent from a bit of a historical perspective?
On the first Sunday in Advent, in many traditional churches, the first candle of their Advent wreath is lit – often by a child or family.
Where did this tradition or these wreaths come from?
Advent wreaths have their origins in the folk traditions of northern Europe. There in the deep of winter, people lit candles on wheel-shaped bundles of evergreen. Both the greens and the circular shape symbolized eternal life. The candlelight gave comfort at this darkest time of the year, as people looked forward to the coming of spring.
Is Advent always celebrated at the same time?
Yes…and no. Since it is the Advent/anticipation of the celebration of our Savior’s birth, Advent traditionally begins 4 Sundays prior to Christmas which often is the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend. So, on today’s calendars, we can be fairly confident that the first Sunday in Advent will take place during (United States) Thanksgiving weekend.
Another tradition that has begun to take place fairly regularly during this weekend (beyond all of the acclaimed shopping, cyber and giving days) are tree lighting ceremonies, like the one we see at Rockefeller Center in New York City along with countless other ceremonies, larger and smaller right around this same time.
When did all this get started?
It’s believed that the four weeks of the Advent season have probably been observed since the fourth century. In fact, during the Middle Ages, Advent began on November 11, the feast of St. Martin and lasted until Christmas Day. It was sort of a wintertime Lent — with a focus on prayer and fasting.
Today, the first weekend in Advent is when many people start putting up Christmas decorations. Christmas lights on Main Streets and on large public Christmas trees are illuminated for the first time … as we all get into the Christmas spirit!
Purple, Rose and White
So where did those Advent wreaths come from?
It’s hard to be certain, but we do know that by the sixteenth century, Christians throughout Europe were making Advent wreaths much as we know them today with four candles — one rose-colored and three purple symbolizing hope, peace and love. The purple candles are lit on the first, second and fourth Sundays of Advent. The rose candle, which symbolizes joy, is usually lit on the third Sunday. Sometimes a white candle is placed inside the wreath and is lit on Christmas.
Not all Advent wreaths are the same — instead of purple candles, some people use blue. Others use all white.
What about Advent Calendars?
Oh, what fun! Can I open the door today? An Advent calendar is a card or poster or flat box with twenty-four small doors, one to be opened each day from December 1 until Christmas Eve. Each door conceals a picture related to the Nativity story. This popular tradition arose in Germany in the late 1800s and soon spread throughout Europe and the Americas.
The first Advent calendars distributed after World War II were printed in Germany in 1946. However, the tradition had already caught on with an American twist — each door opening to a tiny piece of chocolate.
Regrettably, today’s Advent candy calendars often tend to focus more on Santa Claus than on the Nativity.
So then, why do we have Christmas trees?
It is said that the first documented use of a tree in a Christmas celebration was in Latvia in 1510, according to the Riga House of Blackheads, a fraternity in the nation’s capital, Riga. The fraternity’s director, Ojārs Spārītis, says its “Srāgas archives” describe Christmas as early as in 1476, and in 1510 describes a tree decorated with bouquets of ribbons, dried flowers, straw dolls, weavings and fruit. Today, the Riga Christmas Market celebrates that first tree in Riga’s central square with festivities that open on the first Sunday of Advent.
I pray this post helps you to begin to enjoy the season of Advent with renewed enthusiasm and that you find these next four weeks among the most meaningful of your life as you anticipate and celebrate the birth of our Savior, filled with wonder and renewal.
Right here with you,