The Tradition of Advent

Advent is the period of four Sundays and weeks before Christmas (or sometimes from the 1st December to Christmas Day!). Advent means 'Coming' in Latin. This is the coming of Jesus into the world. Christians use the four Sundays and weeks of Advent to prepare and remember the real meaning of Christmas.

There are three meanings of 'coming' that Christians describe in Advent. The first, and most thought of, happened about 2000 years ago when Jesus came into the world as a baby to live as a man and die for us. The second can happen now as Jesus wants to come into our lives now. And the third will happen in the future when Jesus comes back to the world as King and Judge, not a baby.

Some people fast (don't eat anything) during advent to help them concentrate on preparing to celebrate Jesus's coming. In many Orthodox and Eastern Catholics Churches, Advent lasts for 40 days and starts on November 15th and is also called the Nativity Fast.

Orthodox Christians often don't eat meat and dairy during Advent, and depending on the day, also olive oil, wine and fish. You can see what days mean now eating what foods on this calendar from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

There are several ways that Advent is counted down but the most common is by a calendar or candle(s).

There are many types of calendars used in different countries. The most common ones in the UK and USA are made of paper or card with 25 little windows on. A window is opened on every day in December and a Christmas picture is displayed underneath. When they were first made, scenes from the Christmas Story and other Christmas images were used, such as snowmen and robins, but now many calendars are made in the theme of television programmes and sports clubs. Some of these types of calendar even have chocolate under each window, to make every day in December that little bit better! I used to like those when I was a little boy (and still do now!!!)!

Some European countries such as Germany use a wreath of fir with 24 bags or boxes hanging from it. In each box or bag there is a little present for each day.

You can also not get online Advent or 'Christmas Countdown' calendars and there's one on this site. So during December, why don't you visit the Online Advent Calendar and find out about something Christmassy each day!

A Wreath Advent Crown

There are two types of candle(s) that are used to count down to Christmas Day in Advent. The first looks like a normal candle, but has the days up to Christmas Day marked down the candle. On the first of December the candle is lit and burnt down to the first line on the candle. The same is done every day and then the rest of the candle is burnt on Christmas day. I use one of these candles to count down during Advent.

An Advent Crown is another form of candles that are used to count down Advent. These are often used in Churches rather than in people's homes. The crown is often made up of a wreath of greenery and has four candles round the outside and one in the middle or in a separate place. Sometimes a more traditional candelabra is used to display the five candles.

Advent Candles

One candle is lit on the first Sunday of Advent, two are lit on the second Sunday and so on. Each candle has a different meaning in Christianity. Different churches have given them different meanings, but I was taught the following:

  • The first represents Isaiah and other prophets in the bible that predicted the coming of Jesus.
  • The second represents the bible.
  • The third represents Mary, the mother of Jesus.
  • The fourth represents John the Baptist, Jesus' cousin, who told the people in Israel to get ready for Jesus' teaching.

The middle or separate candle is lit on Christmas Day and represents Jesus, the light of the world. In Germany this fifth candle is known as the 'Heiligabend' and is lit on Christmas Eve.

In many churches, the colour purple is used to signify the season of Advent. On the third Sunday, representing Mary, the colour is sometimes changes to pink or rose.

Advent was first recorded about 380AD in Spain. By the 6th century, there are records of monks in Tours (in France) holding a pre-Christmas fast. By end of the 6th century, the four Sundays before Christmas had commonly become known as Advent Sundays.

In medieval and pre-medieval times, in parts of England, there were an early form of Nativity scene called 'advent images' or a 'vessel cup'. They were a box, often with a glass lid that was covered with a white napkin, that contained two dolls representing Mary and the baby Jesus. The box was decorated with ribbons and flowers (and sometimes apples). They were carried around from door to door. It was thought to be very unlucky if you haven't seen a box before Christmas Eve! People paid the box carriers a halfpenny to see the box.

There are some Christmas Carols that are really Advent Carols! These include 'People Look East', 'Come, thou long expected Jesus', 'Lo! He comes, with clouds descending' and perhaps the most popular advent song 'O Come, O Come Emmanuel!'.

Christmas Traditions and Customs