Advent is coming. It begins this Sunday for many … four precious weeks which begin a gentle countdown to Christmas when waiting, anticipation and preparation for Christmas become the focus as themes of Hope, Peace, Joy and Love are observed.
While Advent is celebrated by many Christians, many non-Christians follow some of these customs as well and adopt them as part of their holiday preparation. So, let’s journey together and explore the Season of Advent, its traditions and customs.
SYMBOLS AND TRADITIONS OF ADVENT
Blessing / Gratitude Box/Jar: Advent is an opportunity to “be still” and be aware of the blessings in life and the Gratitude/Blessing (Box/Jar) is a tangible way of encouraging such an attitude.
Take a small box, put a slot in the lid, wrap the box to look like a gift, place it in a central location so that gifts of money can be placed into it each day in thankful gratitude. Invite everyone in the family/house to note the things for which they”re grateful and then have each person choose a currency for each ‘blessing’ on the list and contribute accordingly from their allowance, spending money, earnings, savings etc.. For example – Deposit a quarter (or nickel or dime or dollar or whatever (for each notation on the list) if you had at least two meals that day – for each glass of water consumed that day – for each hour of television you watched that day – for every electrical appliance you used that day – for every light bulk in your home – for each person who has visited a doctor in the past year – for each phone call or text you made that day – for each toilet in your home – for each bath/shower you used that day – for each time the dryer, washer, dishwasher, iron were used that day. Add a quarter (or dime or loonie – whatever) if you’re wearing clothes that have only belonged to you, if you have a bed of your own to sleep, if your house is kept warm (or cool) by anything other than the weather. Have adults add up the total number of years your family members have gone to school and put a dime/quarter/etc. into the box for each year and each person. The list is individual for each family and individual and many other things could be added to the list. The collected money can then be given to a local/global charity.
Advent Calendar: Many Advent Calendars have little doors numbered for each day throughout the Season of Advent which open to reveal a small gift, treat, symbol of Christmas, Bible verse and each day of Advent, a door is opened.
Advent Candles: Used for centuries to symbolize Jesus Christ as the Light of the World, they remind believers of the way that Jesus changed the darkness of hatred and evil into the light of Hope, Peace, Joy and Love … themes of the Season of Advent.
Colours of the Season of Advent:
In Roman and Orthodox Christian traditions, purple is the preferred colour while in Protestant and Episcopal/Anglican the colour of royal blue is growing in popularity. The colour blue is reflected in Nature during Advent’s time of the year in much of the western hemisphere when slight colour differences in the sky peer through almost-barren-trees (like this photo taken from our back deck), evening skies no longer reveal the gorgeous sunsets of summer, and birds flying overhead dotting the horizon are seen less frequently. Really nothing spectacular. And yet, maybe its simplicity is its beauty, encouraging us to slow down and be mindful of the gentle wonder of the Season of Advent.
The Advent Wreath: is circle-shaped as a reminder that God has no beginning and no end; always has been, is now and will be, forever … a reminder of eternal life forever with God. The four candles around the wreath (one lit on each Sunday morning of the Season of Advent) represent the four Sundays of Advent. The colour of the candles is either purple or royal blue (refer to Advent Colours above) except for the one in the middle of the Advent Wreath which is white candle, symbolizing the light of Jesus and is the last candle to be lit (on Christmas Eve). Some traditions include a pink candle on the third Sunday of Advent.
The Yule Log has the longest history of all Advent traditions. A burning log was a symbol of home and safety even back in the days of cave-dwellers where fire kept wild animals away from the cave.
The Yule Log tradition (a variation of the Advent Wreath) began in Scandinavian countries when, months before Christmas, a tree was chosen, cut down and allowed to dry so that when it was decorated with ribbons and candles were inserted and then set ablaze (lit from a portion of the previous year’s Yule Log – symbolizing eternity), families made amends with one another. All quarrels were to be forgotten and families were to draw closer together in love and they prayed that their hearts would remain warm throughout the coming year.
The Yule Log sometimes has sufficient candles to represent each day throughout Advent including four royal blue (or purple) candles for each Sunday in Advent and a large white candle in the centre to represent the birth of Jesus. As in the Advent Wreath, the intensity of light grows each day, with each candle that is lit until there is a blaze of light when the birth of Jesus is celebrated on Christmas.
Blue Christmas: In the afternoon/early evening of the third Sunday in the Season of Advent, a liturgy (known as ‘Blue Christmas’ … or ‘When Christmas Hurts’ … or ‘Time To Mourn, Time To Heal’) is offered in many churches, communities or funeral homes. For some, Christmas may be a painful reminder of their loss of a loved family member or friend who has died. It may be a stressful time due to financial constraints. The constant refrain on radio and tv and in shopping malls about the happiness of the holiday season and getting together with family and friends can remind people of what they have lost or have never had. The anguish of broken relationships, the insecurity of unemployment, the weariness of ill health, the pain of isolation, the fear of possible ramifications of political decisions – each can contribute to a feeling of being alone in the midst of celebrations.
Cards: The tradition of sending Christmas greetings began in England as school children, away from home, wrote Christmas letters home during the Season of Advent to their parents in their best penmanship. Adults also sent Christmas cards to their friends. In 1840, the Christmas card as we now know it, is said to have first appeared.
Designed by William Egley, a young engraver’s apprentice, the card showed people singing Christmas carols, giving food to the poor and dancing. Since that time, the tradition of making homemade Christmas cards and sending Advent letters reviewing the events of the past year have become part of the Christmas preparation.
The Nativity Scene: The creche / manger / Nativity (representing the scene of Jesus’ birth) was first made by St. Francis of Assisi around the year 122 C.E. when he realized that people in his little village in Italy had lost sight of the real meaning of Christmas. When the Nativity Scene is on display in homes or public areas during Advent, the creche/manger where Jesus was born is empty until Christmas Eve or Christmas morning when the Baby is added. The Magi are reserved for the Season of Epiphany (which begins January 6th in western celebrations) and are not added to the Nativity Scene until that time.
Holiday Foods: There are many fascinating customs throughout the world when it comes to Advent and Christmas celebrations. Armenians eat fried fish and boiled spinach; Albanians eat pancakes made without oil or butter leaving a spoonful of food on the plate indicating gratitude for having more than they need. In Poland, special nativity cookies are baked which are stamped with scenes of the Nativity (Creche/Manger) and they exchange nativity cookies in the same way others in Advent exchange Christmas cards. When dinner is served, an empty chair is placed for the Holy Child and a few straws are scattered on the dinner table to remind everyone of the Stable in which Christ was born.
In North America, mince pie is a favourite tradition which began in England as mutton pie, first baked in loaf pans in the shape of the Manger; the top crust was cut to look like the baby wrapped in cloths and the suet looked like straw; the apples and raisins represent “plenty” – the generosity of God; and the spices represent the gifts of the Magi. At one time, eating pies was believed to bring good luck so people would eat one pie each day between Christmas and Epiphany perhaps heralding the making of little pies (tarts) of today.
Christmas Gifts: In the pre-Christian Roman Empire, it was common to give symbolic gifts at the beginning of the new year: a gift of sweets to make the year sweeter for the recipient … a gift of a lamp so the year might be filled with light … the gift of a coin so it would be a prosperous new year. Early Christians didn’t make much of Christmas (the day of Christ’s birth). It wasn’t until the Bishop Liberious of Rome decreed that people should celebrate December 25th as when Christ was born possibly because the Romans had used that date as the feast of Saturn, the sun god, and Christians honoured Christ as the Light of the World.
Around the 16th century, people commonly received three gifts representing something pleasant (e.g. perfume), something useful (e.g. a wooden spatula) and something to enrich their spirituality (e.g. a book on prayer). In some countries, gifts are exchanged on Epiphany, January 6th because presents symbolize the gifts brought by the Magi to the Christ Child.
Christmas Ornaments: In Germany, the first Christmas trees were decorated with fruit, gilded nuts, paper roses and the Christ Child. Later, glass balls in beautiful colours replaced the fruit. In North America, the first ornaments were homemade – long strings of popcorn and cranberries, paper chains and paper stars. On trees in Poland, peacocks and birds joined angels and stars on the tree. Swedish people hang gaily painted wooden ornaments and straw figures of animals and children. In Denmark there are mobiles of bells, stars, snowflakes, hearts and sometimes tiny Danish flags. The Japanese adorn their trees with tiny fans and paper lanterns. Lithuanian women make straw birdcages, stars and geometric shapes. Czechoslovakian trees are hung with ornaments made of painted eggshells and a spider and web for good luck because of the legend of the poor woman who had nothing to put on her child’s tree until Christmas morning when she woke to find the branches covered with spider’s webs turned to silver by the rising sun. Chrismons (see below) are special ornaments.
Christmas Stockings: Bishop Nicholas (later to be known as St. Nicholas lived around 325 C.E. and he secretly would give a gift of money to needy families. When he tossed the gold coins in the window one night, some landed in the stockings that had been hung to dry in front of the fireplace, so people hang Christmas Stockings in the hope that the spirit of St. Nicholas will visit them, too.
The Christmas Tree: is a symbol of everlasting life – living forever with God. According to legend, the first Christmas Tree was revealed one Christmas Eve over 120 years ago. The English missionary, Winfred (later named St. Boniface) was trying to win people for Christ. He found a group gathered at a large oak tree about to sacrifice a little prince to their god, Thor. Winifred stopped them, cut down the tree and as it fell, a young fir tree sprang up. Winfred told the tribespeople about the birth of Christ and that the fir tree was a symbol of goodness and love that should be taken into their homes.
Others believe that the Christmas Tree tradition began in the 16th century with Martin Luther who was inspired by the beauty of tall evergreens against a starry sky. He cut down a tree, took it home to his family, placed lighted candles on the branches and said that they stood for the stars in the heavens above Bethlehem.
Chrismons: are ornaments made in the shape of Christian symbols – reminders of God’s unconditional love expressed through the life of Jesus Christ. The word ‘Chrismon’ is a combination of ‘Christ’ and ‘monogram’. Many of the monograms of Christ were used by Early Christians to identify themselves to one another and to designate meeting locations and places of worship often secret location). Usually made in colour combinations of white, gold and silver to symbolize the purity and majesty of God’s son, Chrismons are often hung on Jesse Trees during the Season of Advent, which are lit by tiny lights (white to represent the Light of the world; blue to represent the Hope of the world – and the Season of Advent). In former times, Chrismons were crocheted from white cotton but more recently, they have been made from felt (sometimes styrofoam), decorated with gold and silver spray, braid, sequins, glitter etc. and white ribbon is used to hang them on the Jesse Tree.
Some symbols used as Chrismons include: STAR (the star that guided the Magi); LIGHT (Jesus, the Light of the world); BOAT (with Christ, the storms of life can be sailed through; FISH (connection to Early Christians who used the fish symbol to self-identify their home as a Christian home); BIRD (dove/Holy Spirit which encourage the spiritual journey); ANGEL (angels who awoke the shepherds announcing Jesus’ birth); CIRCLES (reminder of the earth / Creation and God’s love which has no ending; different colours remind of the various colours of people on earth); PAPER CHAIN (the linking together of the Nations and People who are held together by God’s love); BELLS (announced “good news” of Jesus’ birth); CANDY CANES (the staff/cane of shepherds who were the first to visit the Christ Child); TRUMPET (the heralding of Jesus’ birth); and so many more. Sometimes, images and people in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) are used to decorate Jesse Trees and Scripture is read as the symbol was hung on the tree Moses – burning bush (Exodus 3); Noah – rainbow (Genesis 9); Jacob – ladder (Genesis 28); Joseph – coat of many colours (Genesis 37); Abraham and Sarah – tent (Genesis 21 & 22); David – Star of David (1 & 2 Samuel) etc.
Holly: In the time when Christians were being persecuted because of their religion, they decorated their houses as the Romans did so they wouldn’t be noticed. As the numbers of Christians grew and Christianity became accepted, they gave the holly new meaning and it became part of the tradition of preparation for Christmas. Because holly keeps its berries all year, it signifies everlasting life.
Jesse Tree: The Jesse Tree had its beginnings in medieval times and in early times, churches added Jesse Trees to large carvings, tapestries and stained glass windows to help the illiterate people of the time to learn about the Bible from Creation to the Christmas Story. The ‘name’ (Jesse) comes from the father of King David (an ancestor of Jesus). The people of Israel expected their Messiah to be born from King David’s line (“A sprout from the root of Jesse”) and the image of ‘tree’ revolves around an understanding that tree branches are signs of new life/ new beginnings. As Jesus was a descendent of King David, Christians believe that the Jesse Tree is Jesus’ “family tree.”
In recent times, the Jesse Tree has been used as an Advent Calendar where each day through Advent (or when used in congregational settings, just on the four Sundays of The Season of Advent) a Chrismon is hung on the tree
Advent Around the World: Advent Calendars date back to the 1800’s In Germany. In Southern Germany, Advent is the time of “Knocking Nights” – when children go door to door making lots of noise and receive candy and/or money in return.
In Denmark, three things mark the Season of Advent: Nisse decorations (Nisse are the Danes’ response to Santa’s elves) and house cleaning home/yard/stables and barns (which must be completed by Christmas Eve), Calendar Candles (candles that are lit and burned just a little bit over night until it is finished on Christmas Eve) and Christmas Calendars where students bring a small wrapped package and then students take a trun opening a gift one of the days leading up to Christmas.
In Finland, candles play an important role in the Season of Advent and often snow lanterns with candles burning in them show up in front and back yards.
In the Netherlands, December 6th (St. Nicholas Day) is a day of great excitement for the children. Sinterklaas arrives by boat and then strolls through the town and city streets, delivering candies, nuts and treats in the wooden shoes the children leave out before they go to bed that night.
In Mexico, the nine-day Las Posada procession begins on December 16th where a boy and girl are chosen to play Joseph and Mary and others carry candles, lanterns and and often, an empty manger. Often the procession sings at a particular house, asking for a room for Mary and Joseph and the homeowners respond in song. Other Advent Mexican customs include the breaking of a star-shaped pinata, the sharing of a meal and the sharing of Nacimientos (small creches – often homemade).
In the Philippines, Advent begins at 4:00 am on December 16th when church bells ring and the Misa de Gallo (theMass of the Rooster) begins (some believe) to show penance. The Philippines hold the title of the “Longest Celebrated Advent/Christmas Season) because carols are sung from September to January as parols (star-shaped lanterns) are usually lit with candles.
In Ukraine, all house and field work must be completed by December 4th (the Feast of Presentation celebrating when Mary was presented as a child at the Temple) and many partially fast during the Season of Advent.
© June Maffin