Advent: When does it start, what happens, and what’s it all about?
James Baldock for Metro.co.ukMonday 27 Nov 2017 4:09 pm
Advent is a word that gets thrown around every year, but rarely do we actually stop and think about what it means. While excitement for December 25th and Christmas builds to a fever pitch, for many people the build-up is just as important as the actual event – and easy to miss in the midst of frantic shopping, TV planning and a hundred mince pies at school concerts and office parties.
So why do we have calendars, candles and (gulp) fasting? You’ll find the answers below. When should you put your Christmas tree up? How did Advent originate? The word ‘Advent’ literally means ‘coming’ – it’s derived from the Latin word ‘Adventus’. Originally, it had very little to do with Christmas, and was a 40-day period of fasting (more on that in a moment) and contemplation to prepare new Christians for baptism in January, at the feast of Epiphany.
But by the 6th century, the Roman Church had moved the celebration of Jesus’ birth to December – most likely to tie it in with Yuletide or Saturnalia – and Advent became part of Christmas.
When does it start and what’s the Christian significance? Like Easter, the date for Advent is flexible – although not by much. It begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, and it’s during this time that the Church remembers the sense of anticipation felt by the Jews (or Israelites, as they were then), who were awaiting the prophesied coming of the Messiah. (Picture: Getty)
Many churches commemorate Advent by preparing a wreath with four candles (no, not fork handles), lighting an additional candle each week. On Christmas morning, one more candle – representing Jesus – is lit in the centre. Candles may look pretty, but there’s a special symbolism behind them – like many other Messianic figures, Jesus is repeatedly referred to as the Light Of The World, sent to illuminate the darkness.
Each of the four Sundays the Church concentrates on a different aspect of the story: Week 1 – God’s people, looking to the future with hope. Week 2 – The prophets, who foretold the coming of the Messiah Week 3 – John the Baptist, who preached in the desert, as well as baptising Jesus Week 4 – the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus This is only one version – there are variants – but they all lead up to the lighting of the central candle.
You’ll notice that three of the outer candles are purple (the colour of penitence), but one is rose-coloured. This is the candle for the third week, also known as Gaudete Sunday, where Christians stop and actually spend some time in thanksgiving for all the good things in their lives, rather than fretting about all the things they haven’t done yet.
The wreath itself has pagan origins, rather like the Christmas tree – it’s made from evergreens, symbolising continued growth and the promise of spring, even in the midst of winter. (The word ‘wreath’, incidentally, means ‘to twist’.) The wreath is sometimes known as an Advent crown, and its popularity in this country is largely thanks to Blue Peter, who made wreath construction a staple part of their annual November broadcast.
What else happens? Traditionally, many people fasted during Advent – they’d eat very little until Christmas, and then feast for the best part of a fortnight, known as the Twelve Days of Christmas (so now you know where that comes from). Fasting is now much rarer, although still popular in some quarters.
For Christians, it’s still a time of reflection, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun with it. Many people go carol singing – some carols and hymns (O Come O Come Emmanuel) are geared specifically towards Advent and the idea of waiting, rather than Christmas and the birth of Jesus. Nativity plays are also tremendously popular in schools – a great time to go and watch your children sing It Was On A Starry Night, and scrap over who gets to play Mary.
And if that’s not enough to keep everyone busy, there’s ‘Stir-up Sunday’, traditionally the last Sunday before Advent, when the Christmas pudding is prepared. (This was on Sunday last, but you’ve still got time, and we won’t tell anyone.)
What about Advent calendars? Unlike Advent itself, the traditional Advent calendar runs from December 1st to December 24th. Supposedly, the idea of calendars dates to mid-19th century Germany, where Christians would make chalk marks on their doors to count the days until Christmas. The calendar with perforated doors that we see in the shops today also originated in Germany, although chocolate is a relatively recent addition.
Many houses have an Advent Candle as well as a calendar – a single candle, burning from 1 down to 24 on each successive evening.
These opinions belong to the author and are not necessarily shared by Metro.
I caught this ADVENT Reflection by James Baldock in a METRO article on the Internet this morning. This is so rare an event (writing about Christianity) in secular newspapers these days that I thought is as good idea to publish it here on kiwianglo.
Although offered for U.K. readers of the Metro Magazine, the theme is still very relevant to us in Aotearoa/New Zealand, reminding us of the secular and sacred attitudes towards the Season of Advent leading up to Christmas.
Have a Reflective and Joyfully Expectant Advent.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand