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
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
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
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.