Advent is the period preceding the Christmas season. It begins on the Sunday nearest to November 30, the feast day of St. Andrew the Apostle, and covers the four Sundays before Christmas Day. The liturgical color for Advent is blue.
The word advent, from Latin, means “the coming.” For centuries, Advent has been a time of spiritual reflection as well as cheer and anticipation. Even as the Christmas season has become more secular—with advertisers urging holiday gift-givers to buy and buy some more—Advent still brings joy and the observance of ancient customs. Christian families find quiet moments lighting candles in the Advent wreath, and children use Advent calendars to count the days until Christmas.
The History of Advent
Advent has probably been observed since the fourth century. Originally, it was a time when converts to Christianity readied themselves for baptism.
During the Middle Ages, Advent became associated with preparation for the Second Coming. Advent was considered a pre-Christmas season of Lent when Christians devoted themselves to prayer and fasting. Many Christians still view Advent as a season to prepare for the Second Coming of Jesus and anticipating the birth of Jesus or the Nativity, on Christmas Day.
Advent wreaths have their origins in the folk traditions of northern Europe, where in the deep of winter people lit candles on wheel-shaped bundles of evergreen. Both the evergreen and the circular shape symbolized ongoing life. The candlelight gave comfort at this darkest time of the year, as people looked forward to the longer days of spring.
An advent wreath traditionally contains four candles—three purple and one rose. Purple dyes were one so rare and costly that they were associated with royalty; this color was used around Christmas and Easter to honor Jesus. The three purple candles in the Advent wreath symbolize hope, peace, and love. These candles are lit on the first, second, and fourth Sundays of Advent. The rose candle, which symbolizes joy, is usually lit on the third Sunday.
Sometimes a fifth candle is placed inside the Advent wreath. This candle is lit on Christmas Day. It is white, the color associated with angels and the birth of Jesus.
Because Advent wreaths are an informal celebration, not all are the same. Instead of purple candles, some people use blue, which recalls the color of the night sky before daylight returns, and others use all white candles.
(Credit: Messiah Lutheran Church, Lebanon, PA)