For most Christians, the Christmas season begins on the Sunday closest to November 30th...the Feast Day of Saint Andrew, one of the Twelve Apostles. This Sunday is known as the First Day of Advent, a four-week period during which Christians prepare for the celebration of Christmas. The word "advent" is Latin for "coming towards" ("ad" meaning "towards" and "ven" or "vent" being the core of the Latin verb "veno," which means "to come"). In this context, Advent refers to the coming of Jesus Christ on Christmas Day.
The four Sundays immediately preceding Christmas are traditionally represented by the four candles found on Christmas wreaths. This season was once observed very strictly. Fasting was ordained, church organs remained silent for the first two Sundays, and marriages were prohibited from taking place during the entire period. On the other hand, folk customs did not always match the severity of Church. In Ancient Rome, for example, the last days of Advent were celebrated by Calabrian "pifferari" or bagpipers, who swarmed through the city playing at shrines erected in honor of the Virgin Mary. This music was symbolic of that played by the shepherds who, according to tradition, offered such a melodic tribute to the Baby Jesus.
In old Normandy during the time of Advent, farmers would send forth their children, armed with flaming torches, to drive away pests. Only children younger than twelve years old were considered innocent enough to perform this service, which involved setting fire to bundles of hay, lighting piles of straw placed under trees, and engaging in chants intended to banish mice, caterpillars, moles and other destructive animals. In some areas, Advent was the time when a maiden could determine the identity of her future husband. Taking a number of onions, she would carve each one with the name of a fancied spouse and then place the onions near the fire. The name engraved on whichever onion sprouted first would be the lucky suitor. In certain parts of England, poor women would carry a pair of dolls during the last week of Advent...one dressed as Jesus and one dressed as the Virgin Mary. Everyone to whom they showed the dolls was expected to contribute a halfpenny, or risk a very nasty dose of bad luck.
According to old German tradition, on the first Sunday of Advent, the children should write their Christmas letter to the Christ Child. Accompanied by Angels, it is Christkindl...the Christ Child...who will bring the Christmas tree, together with all the good things to be found both on and beneath it.
To those of the Christian faith, the Christmas season reaches its climax at Midnight Mass (or other religious services) on Christmas Eve. Churches are decorated with candles, lights, evergreen branches and bright-red Poinettias. Christmas carols are sung and readings are given from the Gospels of Saint Luke and Saint Matthew. Priests and ministers deliver sermons to their congregations about the coming of Christ and the need for peace and understanding between all nations of the world. Most churches also hold services on Christmas Day.
The Christmas season ends on Epiphany or January 6th. In Western churches, Epiphany marks the coming of the Wise Men to the Christ Child. Among Eastern Christians, this day is the celebration of Jesus' baptism. Epiphany falls on the twelfth day after Christmas. The tradition of Advent, being a relatively recent Christmas ritual of German origin, is celebrated primarily in the German-speaking areas of Europe and particularly in the protestant German areas of the United States.
In many countries, people use special Advent Calendars to keep track of the twenty-four days prior to Christmas. An Advent Calendar usually displays a colorful Christmas scene with each date printed upon a flap. One flap is lifted per day to uncover a holiday picture or Biblical verse.
Advent Calendars were first used in the Nineteenth Century and originated (as stated above) from the protestant area of Germany. Protestant Christian families made a chalk line for every day in December until the arrival of Christmas Eve. Before long, commercial entrepreneurs began replacing the ephemeral lines of chalk with printed calendars. The first known Advent Calendar dates from 1851 and the first printed version was made by Gerhard Lang, a Swabian parishioner from Maulbronn in Germany.
When Lang had been a child, his mother had made him an Advent Calendar with twenty-four "wibbele" or little candles. Later, while affiliated with the printing office of Reichhold & Lang, Lang published a series of miniature colored pictures which could be affixed to a piece of cardboard...one for every day in December. This first printed Advent Calendar, which had no windows to open, was marketed in 1908.
The celebration of Advent quickly became very popular during the early decades of the Twenthieth Century. Despite Lang's success, however, he was forced to close his business in the 1930s because of World War II. This put an end to the observance of Advent in many German homes, as well as impeding the growth and spread of the tradition.
The first printed version of the Advent Calendar which appeared after the war was marketed by Richard Sellmer in 1946 and the tradition gradually regained popularity. Advent Calendars continue to be printed today.
Toward the end of the Nineteenth Century, Advent Clocks or Advent Candles began to make an appearance in many German homes. On an Advent Candle, the dates appear in a row down the side. Each evening, the Candle is lit and then burned down to the next date. By Christmas Day, the entire Candle has melted.
In some homes, it is customary to keep twenty-four candles...one for each night from December 1st through Christmas Eve. One candle is lit for a short period of time on December 1st and then a new candle is added each day for the twenty-four day period. The more usual practice in those homes which use Advent Candles, however, is to have only four candles...one for each of the four weeks prior to Christmas. One candle is lit the first week, two the second week, and so on. Often, the candles are placed upon a wreath which forms the centerpiece of the dining room table.
In Denmark, the Christmas season begins on December 1st with the lighting of the Advent Candle. The candle is marked with the customary twenty-four lines...one for each day prior to Christmas. To the Danish people, the burning of the Advent Candle represents the waiting and preparation for the coming of Christ.
The Advent Wreath is a Lutheran custom which originated in Eastern Germany. Advent Wreaths are round...having no beginning and no ending... sybolizing God's eternity and mercy, of which every season of Advent is a new reminder. It is also likened to the circle of life.
The Advent Wreath is made of evergreens to symbolize the everlasting God and immortality of humankind. Evergreens also represent the victory of life through darkness and challenge. The fact that an evergreen can live through Winter signifies the strength of life itself. Green is also the color of the Church, representative of hope and new life. Four candles...three of purple or violet, symbolizing penance, sorrow, longing and expectation, and one candle of rose or pink to represent hope and coming joy...are placed within the wreath as symbols of the four weeks of Advent. These are replaced with white candles for the Christmas Season which ends with Epiphany. Wreaths are an ancient symbol of victory and to Christians, symbolize the fulfillment of time in the coming of Christ and the glory of his birth.
More than just a decorative touch for the wall or door, wreaths have existed in various forms since the time of the ancient Romans and are steeped with age-old traditions. Wreaths are, in essence, an eternal part of the festive season. In ancient Greece, a coral wreath was awarded to victors in sporting events, in much the same way that today's Olympic champions are awarded gold medals. Wreaths were, and still are, a sign of victory and, in Roman times, were often hung upon doors of those victorious in battle, thus advertising their status.
In a religious sense, the Advent Wreath has a place in Catholic tradition. This special wreath is created with four candles, as detailed above. One candle is lit each Friday of Advent accompanied by a prayer. In this manner, the wreath is representative of the coming Christmas celebrations. Scandinavian wreaths also feature candles, which illuminate the Winter nights and offer a promise of hope for the future light of Spring. It was once believed that the wreath and candles would encourage the Norse God of Light to turn the world back toward the direction of the Sun.
Pagan Mid-Winter rituals often featured a wreath of evergreen with four candles. The candles were placed in each of the four directions to represent the elements of earth, wind, water and fire. Rites were solemnly performed in order to ensure the continuance of the circle of life symbolized by the evergreen wreath. Their decorative value is also believed to have been derived by ancient tradition. In much the same way as house numbers are used today, so did wreaths featuring different floral arrangement identify different families and houses.