Advent is a word often heard during the weeks leading up to the Christmas season, but as many churches do not actually celebrate Advent, a great number of people do not understand its meaning or its place in church history. To millions, Advent is about wreaths, candles, and calendars. While these three elements are a way to mark the Advent season and have become an essential part of the celebration of this tradition, maybe even overshadowing the four weeks of Advent itself, there is a great deal more to Advent than this.
Advent is a Latin word meaning "the coming." Officially established by church leaders in the sixth century, Advent was originally meant to be a time when Christians reflected on the meaning of Christmas and when new believers spiritually prepared themselves for baptism. Beginning on the Sunday nearest November 30th and running until Christmas Eve, Advent was essentially four weeks set aside to contemplate what the coming of Jesus meant not only to the world but to every individual's soul. Hence, while recognized and organized by the church, Advent was also supposed to be a time of personal retrospection and growth. Today, fourteen hundred years after the first Advent season, many families use the symbols of Advent-wreaths, candles, and calendars-to bring the spiritual meaning of Christmas alive in a way that teaches minds, touches hearts, and reflects the original purpose of the tradition.
To the early Christians, three different meanings were to be found in the days of Advent, or the days of the coming. The first was the coming of the Son of God to earth in human form as the babe in the manger. The second was the coming of Jesus into the lives, hearts, and actions of those who accepted him as their Savior. The third was the future coming when Jesus will return to the earth as a king. As times changed and the world came to view Christmas in terms of the baby Jesus and not the role he played on earth and the role he will play in his future kingdom, the meaning of Advent changed as well.
Until World War II, most people who celebrated Advent dwelled more on the final coming, the time when Jesus would return, than on the first coming, the birth of the child. But as Christmas evolved into a holiday for children, Advent also evolved into a time to remember the child in the manger. A part of the missionary zeal of the holiday may have been lost, but for most people who celebrate Advent, the tenderness and love that was presented in the story of the first Christmas has come to mean even more during the Advent season.
Even in the early church, the clergy and the laypeople looked for tangible ways to help believers remember the season of Advent. In far northern Europe, the Vikings who had converted to Christianity grasped upon the idea of Advent with an exuberance that did not exist in the rest of world. Because the Norse winters were so long and dark, the light that Jesus brought to the earth, along with the promise of everlasting life beyond the bounds of a harsh world, meant a great deal to these new believers. Out of this faith and their cultural interpretation of the Christmas season, the Vikings created the Advent wreath.
The evergreen tree was a wonderful inspiration to the people of northern Europe. Trapped by long harsh winters, going weeks suffering through black cold nights and short bitter days, these people looked upon the heartiness and strength of the fir trees with awe. During a time when almost everything else died, here was a plant that even winter could not stunt or stop. Because of this, the Christians of this region saw the tree as a symbol for faith. During the season of Advent, they took limbs from the evergreen and shaped them into a wheel-like decoration. Then, to mark the passing days and remember the strength of their faith, they placed a candle on the wreath to represent the light brought to the world with Christ's birth. These Advent wreaths were the first symbols used to mark the monthlong period anticipating Christmas.
Over time the custom of the Advent wreath spread across Europe. As it did, more candles were added, one for each week of the season. Though the candles varied in color from church to church and from country to country, the meaning of each light remained the same. Three of the candles, most commonly purple, represented what many Christians believed to be the most precious gifts of Christmas: hope, peace, and love. The final candle, most often red in color, symbolized the joy of new life gained through the gift of Christ's sacrifice on the cross. Some added a white candle to the wreath. It was lit on Christmas Eve and stood for Jesus' birth.
For centuries, the wreath was the sole symbol of Advent, but during the late Middle Ages, stand-alone candles joined the wreath in marking the importance of the four weeks of worship and reflection. Initially one large candle was used. Marks were made on the candle to represent each day between the first Sunday of Advent and Christmas Eve. In churches and homes, the candles were lit daily and allowed to burn until they reached the next mark. Over the course of a month, the candle would be used up.
Other traditions included using many different candles, one lit during each day of Advent. Some families incorporated prayers into each lighting ritual. On the final day, when all the candles were lit, the wick of a large candle was ignited. Slowly, each of the smaller candles would be extinguished until only the one standing for Christ remained to light the room.
The Advent candles took on special meanings in many churches. One candle was lit during each Sunday of the celebration. Usually the first candle represented the prophets who predicted the coming of Jesus. The second candle represented the Bible and its message. The third candle came to stand for Jesus' mother Mary and her acceptance of her mission. On the final Sunday of Advent, a candle was lit for John the Baptist, the man who told the world that a Savior would be coming soon. Most churches that participated in this practice had a larger candle that stood in the middle of the other four. This candle was lit on Christmas Day and stood for Jesus.
The Advent tradition that is most common today is also the newest-the advent calendar. The Advent calendar originated in Germany a century and a half ago. This children's favorite has probably done more to keep alive the ancient tradition of marking the weeks leading up to Christmas than any other custom or tradition.
Since Germans celebrated Christmas as a children's holiday well before the rest of the world caught onto the concept, it is not surprising that these people adapted the marking of the days of Advent into a ritual that children would find fascinating. Two centuries ago, in many German homes an Advent wreath was hung, but instead of candles, twenty-four tiny bags were placed in the wreath. Beginning on December 1, each day the children opened a new bag, inside of which was a special treat. For eager children, it was like getting a gift every day.
The Advent calendar was an outgrowth of these treat-wreaths and the old custom of using a chalk line to mark off the days from December 1 until Christmas. As a majority of people could not read during the 1800s, and even fewer had access to a calendar, many families would make a mark on their door on the first day of December. Then they would continue to add marks until the marks totaled twenty-five. This is how they knew when to celebrate the birth of Christ.
Gerhard Lang's mother took the concept of marking the days a step further. Using a large prenumbered board, she hung twenty-four pieces of candy with string, one by the number for each day of the month. Gerhard was allowed to take down one treat per day during the first twenty-four days of December. When the candy was gone, Christmas had arrived.
By the turn of the nineteenth century, Lang had grown into a man and was a partner in the printing firm Reichhold and Lang. Remembering how his mother had counted down the days until Christmas, he printed and sold twenty-four tiny pictures that could be glued to any large calendar. The concept quickly became popular, and by 1908 Lang was producing calendars that had doors or windows that could be opened. Inside each door was the drawing of a piece of candy, a toy, or a Christmas decoration. Overnight, the "Munich Christmas Calendar" became one of the most popular Christmas traditions in Germany. By the end of World War II, the custom had spread across Europe and to the United States. By this time the calendars' windows not only hid children's presents but some also opened to Bible verses and pictures from the nativity scene. Such calendars were for sale in stores and catalogs in almost every corner of the world.
Today Advent calendars are one of the most common ways to count down the days before Christmas. Colorful and inexpensive, some secular, others filled with spiritual images, the imagery presented on each new calendar helps stir excitement about the coming of Christmas. And even though few who use the calendars realize it, that anticipation of "the coming" is what Advent is really all about.
In worship services, wreaths, candles, or calendars, Advent is much like a movie preview. Each of its forms and symbols marks the time leading to the special event that is about to take place. Advent heightens the senses and emotions and sets the stage for the wonder of Christmas. When presented in the proper way, the way in which the early church intended, Advent also plants the spiritual seeds that grow into an understanding of the reason for this special season. Christmas is still Christmas without Advent, but the festive four-week countdown puts the holiday into the proper perspective.
Even in forums that ignore Jesus' tie to the Christmas holiday, angels often find a prominent place. For reasons few can explain, throughout history these heavenly creatures have touched hearts and changed minds, they have caused people to reflect and reconsider, and they have represented the force of good in such profound ways that even evil seems to bow down before them. And while it is written that they are with us always, perhaps it is during Christmas that they seem most real to us.
During the holiday season, angels seem to be in as many places as Santa. Angels fly through the season as often as snowflakes, and their wings and halos are front and center in almost every aspect of the numerous Christmas festivals and celebrations. They can be found in music, in television shows, and in all kinds of advertisements. Angels are the stars of movies, the subjects of books, and the fund-raising symbols of numerous organizations. Angels are one of the most popular ornaments and decorations and one of the most familiar designs on wrapping paper. They are used as outdoor decorations, perch atop Christmas trees, and shimmer on festive sweaters.