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What Is Advent? Understanding the Meaning of the Advent Season

It’s drawing nearer (or already here), that time when we climb up to our dusty attics and seek out stacks of repurposed moving boxes marked “Christmas.” Out come the wreaths and garlands, the endless strings of tangled lights, the plastic lawn ornaments and light-up deer, and maybe even an occasional inflatable Grinch.

If you’re lucky, among the tinsel and baubles, you’ll find a beautiful Advent calendar. Beyond the chocolate-a-day tradition, what is Advent? Why do we celebrate Advent with our families? And where did the tradition of the Advent calendar come from?

What is Advent? Understanding the meaning of the Advent season.

This is a guest post written for the Koala Mom by Laurel Whitworth.

Advent: the Meaning of the Word

The word “advent” literally means “the arrival of a notable person, thing, or event.”

Advent—which spans most of December—is a time of waiting and preparation for the second coming of Christ. This waiting is observed from three different perspectives:

  1. the coming of Christ in the flesh at the Nativity
  2. his arrival in our hearts
  3. his arrival in glory at the end of time.

What is Advent? It’s a time when the devout openly share in the longing for the Second Coming.

When Advent Began

It’s unclear when Advent first began, though it’s believed Advent has been in existence since about 480. Records indicate that monks were ordered to fast every day in December around 567. Others say Saint Peter founded Advent.

It’s impossible to place an exact date of when the tradition was established. Some sources indicate Advent was started by Bishop Perpetuus in the fifth century, beginning with the feast of Saint Martin. Therefore, Advent is also known as the Lent of Saint Martin.

In the fifth and sixth centuries, starting on November 11th, worshippers would fast three times per week until the coming of Christmas. In 581, France adopted the practice. Some of the most pious of believers went above and beyond the three-day-per-week requirement and fasted every day of Advent.

What Is the Difference Between Advent and Lent?

The early practices of Advent and Lent are so similar that it’s hard to differentiate between the two. Because early Advent tradition included fasting and was referred to as the Lent of Saint Martin, the Second Vatican Council emphasized the differences in the spirit of both traditions in 1963. The council noted that Advent is a season of the hope of Christ’s Second Coming.

The Advent Wreath

There are a handful of observed traditions during the Advent season, from liturgical colors to music and decorations. As a matter of fact, one of our most common Christmas decorations originates from the Advent season.

The Advent wreath was a concept started by 16th century German Lutherans. It took nearly three centuries for the modern Advent wreath to come about. The wreath we know today is surrounded by candles which represent each celebrated Sunday of the season. German Pastor Johann Hinrich Wichern is behind the concept. In 1839, he proposed the lighting of Advent candles would teach children patience as they eagerly awaited the coming of Christmas.

The wreath is traditionally made of fir branches dotted with pine cones, laurel, holly, and mistletoe, and decorated with a red ribbon. The shape of the wreath, like that of a crown, represents victory.

The four candles along the outside of the wreath represent the four Sundays before Christmas. They also represent the four cardinal virtues—prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. Finally, they represent the four seasons of the year.

The fir tree symbolizes strength, and its green color represents hope. Laurel is a sign of victory over sin, and, because neither it nor holly drops its leaves, this represents the eternity of God.

In early days, the Advent wreath was kept on a table in the center of the house for all to enjoy. Many households still uphold this tradition.

Liturgical Colors for Advent

Violet is the traditional liturgical color of Advent, though some Christian denominations use blue.

On Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent purple (the color for penance) is replaced by rose. Gaudete is the Latin word for “rejoice” and rose is a color representing joy. It takes precedent over purple when the otherwise somber mood of Advent is overridden by the joyous anticipation of the Lord’s Second Coming.

The Four Sundays

Each Sunday of Advent represents a different theme.

The First Sunday, known as Advent Sunday, represents the anticipation of the Second Coming.

The Second Sunday recalls the teachings of John the Baptist, who speaks of preparing the way of the Lord.

The Third Sunday, Gaudete Sunday, represents the joy of the second coming of Christ.

The Fourth Sunday involves readings of Mary and Joseph and the birth of Jesus.

Sundays during Advent should not be given to fasting, but instead to celebration, because we celebrate the resurrection of Our Lord each Sunday.

The Advent Calendar

The Advent calendar was introduced in the 19th and 20th centuries by German Lutherans. It has now become a beloved tradition of the Christmas season. The calendar is used to count down the days until Christmas. Traditionally, an Advent calendar features a manger scene and, sometimes, Saint Nicholas.

Calendars take many forms, from traditional to modern, but the most popular ones feature small doors—one for each day of December up until Christmas day. The cubbies behind these doors hold a small gift—either a trinket or a candy. This, like the lighting of the four Advent wreath candles, both satisfies and heightens the anticipation of children awaiting the coming of Christmas morning.

What is Advent? Understanding the meaning of the Advent season.

Celebrating Around the World

The most popular way to celebrate Advent is by both lighting wreath candles each Sunday as well as keeping an Advent calendar at home. There are a few lesser-known traditions as well.

In Italy, bagpipe players play in front of the shrines of Mary during the last days of Advent. It’s traditionally believed shepherds played bagpipes at the manger in Bethlehem, paying homage to baby Jesus.

No longer observed for obvious reasons, in Normandy farmers would send children running through the fields while wielding torches. Kids would set fire to piles of straw to drive out vermin, representative of driving out sin from worshippers’ hearts.

In England, the custom was for the poor women of the region to carry around dolls representing both Jesus and Mary. Anyone who witnessed them was required to give the women a halfpenny. If they refused, it was said that bad luck would fall upon the household.

Most recently, the residents of Frankfurt, Germany adopted the tradition of creating an Advent labyrinth of 2,500 tea lights on the third Saturday of Advent. This sparkling labyrinth of fire is said to represent the journey of the wise men in search of the manger and Savior of the world by following the light of the stars.

What is Advent to you? How do you celebrate this season?

Laurel Whitworth is married to David and is a mom to four little people. She is the VP of Merchandise for Aquinas & More as well as the manager of all things family life. She and her family are enjoying their new life in Colorado with many trips into the mountains and forging new friendships in church and school. Laurel dreams of a world where all baptized Catholics rise up and follow their faith in every aspect of life.

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