Marking the beginning of the Christian liturgical year across many different Western churches, and beginning the period of preparation and celebration of the Nativity of Jesus at Christmas, Advent runs between 22 and 28 days. In the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Methodist Church, and the Western Rite of the Orthodox Church, It begins on the Sunday nearest St. Andrew’s Day (November 30th) and then runs the next three Sundays – and ends on the nearest Sunday to Christmas Eve or on Christmas Eve itself. However, in the Mozarabic Rite of the Catholic Church and the Ambrosian Rite of the Catholic Church, this holiday begins on the sixth Sunday before Christmas or the Sunday following St. Martin’s Day (November 11th).
The History of Advent
While some people claim that the Advent Season began with St. Peter, there is little evidence of that assertion. Most scholars and historians believe that the Nativity of Jesus Christ was established sometime during the fourth century. During the 5th century, homilies discussed preparation for the liturgical season but didn’t disclose the time when that season began. It was until the sixth century, that a Synod established Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from the 11th of November until Nativity would be offered under the Lenten rite. It is believed that during this time, the Advent Season was established. Originally, it was celebrated for five Sundays, but Pope Gregory VII reduced it to four Sundays during his papacy in the 11th century. And it’s been so ever since, although there are still some churches which observe a longer Advent Season.
Advent Customs & Traditions
Traditionally, Advent is supposed to be accompanied by fasting, but not everyone follows this tradition. Fasting goes back to the 5th century when Bishop Perpetuus of Tours declared that Christians should fast three days a week beginning the day after St. Martin’s Day, all the way up to Christmas. Many local councils during the 5th and 6th centuries instructed their congregations to fast on all days, except for Saturdays and Sundays, from St. Martin’s Day to Epiphany. This was 40 days of fasting in a 56 day period of time and was called St. Martin’s Lent. However, this fasting would later be shortened dramatically and called the Advent Season. Eventually, the Lutheran and Anglican churches would drastically relax this rule and the Roman Catholic Church would abolish fasting as a general rule for Advent. However, many Eastern Orthodox churches still maintain the practice of 40 days of pre-Christmas fasting, and some other churches not only encourage fasting but also forbid dancing and festivities during Lent.
The Advent Wreath or Crown
Advent Wreaths are often found not only in people’s homes but also in the church. This circular evergreen wreath usually contains 4 candles (and sometimes 5 candles) and each of these candles represents one of the Sundays of Advent. Families who have this wreath in the home will light the candles on each Sunday and say prayers together. It is believed that this tradition goes back to Lutherans in Germany during the 16th century. Sometimes this wreath is known as an Advent Crown.
The Jesse Tree
Another popular tradition during the Advent Season is the Jesse Tree. This tree, named for the father of David, is one that is decorated throughout the Advent Season with symbols of biblical people that are historically associated with or came before, the birth of Jesus Christ. This can include people such as Abraham, Noah, and Moses, as well as Mary and Joseph. By decorating this tree, children can be reminded of historical biblical figures and can also be taught about the preparatory nature of the Advent Season.
The Colors of Advent
Purple is usually the primary color associated with Advent because it has historically been the color of royalty and has also been know to reflect penitence and fasting. However, over the years, many different churches have begun using colors other than purple for this holiday. Some churches now use rose or pink colors to represent the joy of the birth of Christ. Other churches may use the color blue to distinguish this liturgical season from Lent.
The First Sunday of Advent
The First Sunday of Advent is particularly important during the Advent Season and many special activities are launched on this day. Advent calendars may be given on this day. Advent calendars are calendars which count the day to Christmas. Usually, these calendars feature a design where each day, or each Sunday, can be opened, after that day has passed, revealing a toy, chocolate or another treat. This makes it fun for the children to observe the Advent Season. On this day, some people may also light the first candle on their Advent Wreath. This candle symbolizes Hope.
The Second Sunday of Advent
On the Second Sunday of Advent, the first and second candle is lit and this second candle represents Peace. It also symbolizes all of the preparations that had to be made in order to receive and take care of the Christ child. On this day, Bible readings that relate to Christ and his manger are read.
The Third Sunday of Advent
The Third Sunday of Advent, also known as Gaudete Sunday, calls for the lighting of the first two candles, as well as the third candle of the Advent Wreath. The candle is known as Joy. On this day, rose-colored vestments are usually worn and the Bible passages read all relate to St. John the Baptist.
The Fourth Sunday of Advent
All of the candles are lit on the fourth Sunday. The candle representing this day symbolizes Love. All of the readings on this day pertain to the annunciation of Christ’s birth. When the Advent Wreath has a fifth candle, a candle also known as the Christ Candle, it is lit during the Christmas Eve service.