Advent is the beginning of the Western liturgical year and starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. The celebration of Advent are hundreds of years old. In the fifth century, Bishop Perpetuus, in the diocese of Tours, gave an order that starting with the feast of St Martin on 11 November, until Christmas, there should be fasting three times per week. The Council of Tours of 567 ordered the monks to fast every day in the month of December until Christmas. It seems that originally fasting was a very important part of the Advent period. A far cry from starting the season with a massive shopping spree beginning with Black Friday.
Beyond shopping, there are still many other customs associated with this period of preparation for Christmas, one of the most beautiful being the Advent wreath. The Advent wreath originated among German Lutherans in the 16th Century. The modern version of the Advent wreath was invented in 1839 by Pastor Johann Hinrich Wichern who ran a mission school among the poor. The constant pestering by children impatient for Christmas led the pastor to his creation. He then made a circle of wood, with nineteen small red tapers and four large white candles. Every morning a small candle was lit, and every Sunday a large candle, giving the children a way to count down the days.
The ring or crown is traditionally made of fir branches tied with a red ribbon and decorated with pine cones, holly, laurel and sometimes mistletoe. It incorporates many ancient symbols signifying several things; first of all, the crown symbolizes victory, in addition to its round form evoking the sun and its return each year. In it’s Christian use the victory is that of Christ, bringing salvation and the return is the anticipation of his return. The number of four represents, in addition to the four weeks of Advent, the four seasons and the four cardinal points, and the green color is a sign of life and hope. The greens, too, have meaning; the fir tree is a symbol of strength and laurel is a symbol of victory, for Christians, over sin and suffering. Along with holly, these evergreen which do not loose their leaves represent the eternity of God. The flames of candles are the representation of the Christmas light approaching and bringing hope and peace. Many more examples of symbolism in the wreath can be found, many coming from the vision and inspiration of various church pastors.
In Sweden, the candles are white, symbol of festivity and purity, and the crown is reserved for the feast of Saint Lucia on 13 December. In Canada, the Advent wreath is adorned with three violet candles and a pink candle; The pink candle being lit on the 3rd Sunday, it evokes the joy of the completion of waiting. In Austria, candles are purple, a sign of penance. The colors for the most part are chosen from the colors associated with the liturgy for the period but sometimes other colors are used. In the Orthodox churches there are sometimes crowns with six candles, because of the longer duration of Advent.
A result of an Advent no longer observed by many is the beginning of decorating for Christmas starting around the first of December. In the United States this comes just after Thanksgiving and many take advantage of the days off to put up outdoor lights and other decorations. People bring out their Advent calendars, as I do, as well as putting together their Advent wreaths, or making Christingle, another Advent candle burning device. It had it’s origins in the Moravian Church. It is built with an orange as the foundation, representing the world. A candle is pushed into the center of the orange, representing Jesus Christ as the light of the world. A red ribbon wrapped around the orange or a paper frill around the candle represents the blood of Christ, his sacrifice. Finally, dried fruits and/or sweets skewered on cocktail sticks pushed into the orange, representing the fruits of the earth and the four seasons, making this a great project for children. It can be made even more child friendly and safe by replacing the candles with glowsticks as Chelmsford Cathedral in the U.K. began to do several years ago.
Many old customs have gone extinct and many are observed only locally. Just as know one any longer goes begging for “soul cakes” in the northern counties of England there was a now vanished custom for poor women to carry around the “Advent images”, two dolls dressed to represent Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary. A halfpenny coin was expected from every one to whom these were exhibited and bad luck was thought to menace the household not visited by the doll-bearers before Christmas Eve at the latest. Unique among Advent rituals is the entry into Rome in the last days of Advent of the Calabrian pifferari, or bagpipe players, who play before the shrines of Mary, the mother of Jesus. In the Italian tradition, the shepherds played these pipes when they came to pay homage to the infant Jesus. They have been doing this for centuries.
Before I pull my Advent calendar out of storage I get a piece of paper and write twenty five things I want to do or get during the coming year. This gives me two treats a month plus one for my birthday, not excessive but enough to maintain morale. I don’t always get them all; in a few lean years I got very few. Still it helps to start the years with optimism and a sense of fun. I cut the paper list into pieces and shake them up in a container. When I get the calendar out without looking I pick one and put it in day one’s little box, repeating until the papers are gone and the calendar is full. This year I am a bit behind. My strips are ready but I haven’t had a chance to get to my storage. On November 30 I went to the city for banking and shopping and to see if Mr. Mohammed had found a new place. He has not given up and is looking hard. Yesterday I cleaned the house with the help of my cleaner, as there is no point in decorating a house which needs cleaning.
Then I had a special errand. On my way home from Georgia with the new cat tree I stopped at an IHop restaurant to eat and get directions. Road construction had caused me to lose the route I was following. It was a very busy, crowded place in a rural area on a Saturday mornng. There was a waiting line. But all the staff were friendly and efficient and I enjoying my pancakes with lingonberry sauce, something I hadn’t had in ages. Three and a half hours after I left, I was almost back to Virginia when I stopped for gas and discovered my wallet was missing. I called the IHop and miracle of miracles they had the wallet! Any of those many people could have walked of with it but no one did!
I was tired and coming down with something which turned out to be sinusitis and bronchitis. The idea of driving back to get the wallet and spending another night in a hot, dry hotel was sheer misery. The woman I spoke with said she would mail it back to me on Monday when the Post Office opened. Sure enough it came priority in Wednesday’s post. So I put what she had spent mailing it back to me into a Christmas card and went out and got a pair of gifts cards and posted it to her. She said she didn’t need the cards but I was so thrilled to encounter a Good Samaritan in this day and age I sent them. So my Christmas season started on a very appropriate note. Getting my Advent calendar out a day late was nothing in comparision to not having to get a new license and stop my credit cards or even driving back to get the wallet. Oh, and in case you wonder how I got home with no wallet, I always separate my personal and financial things when I travel. My gold card and checkbook were in my suitcase and I drove home very carefully, but I was able to buy gas.