Preparing Your Heart for Christmas

There are now less than 10 full days before Christmas and we’re coming into our 3rd weekend in the season of Advent; the first season in the Christian Church year.  So, how are you feeling?  …good feelings of anticipation this year or, not so much?

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 supposed to be all about.  But it’s not always easy.  And for most of us, there’s at least a little work to be done to prepare our hearts and minds.  Advent is a season of 4 weeks 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; fittingly, attributes of our Savior that, when given some intentional thought each day, can help us to maintain or even grow in our appreciation of this amazing gift that is Christmas.

As we begin to contemplate how this celebration of our Savior’s birth can help bring about more hope, peace, joy and love in our lives however, let’s also seek to remove some of the potential tension, stress or anxiety that can sometimes creep in to this season by taking a look at Advent from a bit of a historical perspective and why it should and really can still hold meaning for each of us today.

On the first Sunday in Advent, in many traditional churches, a first candle on their Advent wreath is lit – often by a child or family.  There may be some words spoken as to the significance of this candle; what hope they have for this year or, they may just light the candle and allow those present to simply contemplate this on their own.

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 life that Jesus offers to each of us today.  The candlelight gave comfort at this darkest time of the year, as people looked forward to the coming of spring.  It also reminds us of the light that Jesus brings to an often-darkened world around us.  Today, each candle has specific significance and provides an opportunity for us to ponder and give thanks for what the presence of Jesus means in each of our lives.

Purple, Rose and White –What Do the Colors of the Candles Represent? 

There are varying traditions and explanations here so, while it’s hard to say for sure, we do know that by the sixteenth century, Christians throughout Europe were making Advent wreaths much as we know them today; with four candles – most typically, one rose-colored and three purple. The purple candles represent hope, peace and love and 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, in celebration of the coming of Jesus, the Messiah (or Savior) of the world. Not all Advent wreaths are the same. Instead of purple candles, some people use blue, typically still with the rose color.  Others use all white candles in their wreaths.  Suffice to say, whatever colors are chosen; there can be meaningful significance and celebration in this tradition.

Do you light candles around an Advent wreath this time of year? What are some of the hopes and joys as well as the peaceful and loving circumstances you are praying for, or about? Take a moment, right now as you read this to pause, reflect upon and complete the following phrases about how Jesus’ coming in to your world has helped to shape and change your perspective and life:

This year, as we celebrate Jesus’ giving up heaven to come in to our midst,

  • I hope that I can learn to….
  • I am full of joy for…
  • I pray for peace over…
  • I ask that he help me exhibit greater love toward…

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 is most often 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 in cities and towns throughout the world, 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. In those days, it was sort of the wintertime version of another religious holiday observed and celebrated at Eastertime, called Lent, where the focus is on prayer and fasting.

Today, as mentioned, we typically begin to prepare our hearts and minds for the celebration of the coming of our Lord, Jesus, the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend.  This first weekend in Advent has also widely become a time when many begin putting up all of their Christmas decorations. Whole houses are decorated and there are even competitions as to who can put on the most amazing display.  Christmas lights on Main Streets and on large public Christmas trees are illuminated for the first time… as everyone seeks to get into the Christmas spirit!

What about Advent Calendars?

An Advent calendar is a card or poster or flat box with twenty-four small doors, one to be opened each day from December 1st until Christmas Eve. Traditionally, each door concealed a picture related to the Nativity story.

This popular custom 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 more often tend to focus on Santa Claus or other commercialized themes, than on the Nativity.

What about Christmas trees?

It is said that the first documented use of a tree in a Christmas celebration was in the small Eastern-European country of Latvia in 1510, according to the House of Blackheads, a fraternity in Latvia’s capital, Riga. The fraternity’s director, Ojārs Spārītis, says its “Srāgas archives” describe Christmas as early as in 1476.  And in 1510, the archives describe 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.

Do you decorate for Christmas?  How (what all) do you decorate? Do your decorations or those of your neighbors seem more to honor/celebrate the arrival of Christ or do they take on more of a commercial theme (Santa, reindeer, packages, snowmen, etc.)?

As you prepare this year and maybe bake, decorate, exchange gifts/good wishes and enjoy all of the festivities associated with the celebration of God sending His one and only Son, I hope and pray this information helps you to begin to enjoy the season of Advent with renewed enthusiasm.  Take some time in the coming days to read through Luke’s account in the 1st and 2nd chapters of the book that bears his name in the Bible (Luke 1-2).  As you celebrate all that God has done, may you find the coming weeks among the most meaningful of your life as you anticipate and celebrate the birth of our Savior, filled with wonder, awe and renewal.

Merry Christmas!

Right here with you,