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Advent – Traditions around the world



During the darkest days of winter, Christians prepare for one of their religion’s most important holidays during the season of Advent. Lasting roughly four weeks, it’s a season of candlelight, reflection, and expectation—a chance to get ready for Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. The season’s dates vary from year to year.


In the weeks before Christmas, churches around the world celebrate Advent—a season of reflection and preparation for the birth of Jesus Christ. The holiday, which gets its name from the Latin word for arrival, serves as a countdown to Christmas when Christians honor the birth of Jesus Christ.


Advent gets its name from adventus, the Latin word for “arrival.” As the Christian church solidified in the fifth century A.D., so did traditions around December 25. Historians have tracked the first formal Advent celebrations to northern Italy, where churchgoers observed a weeks-long preparation for Christmas that involved fasting, prayer, and reflection on Christian values.


Eventually, that preparation became known as Advent. By the sixth century, Christians in France celebrated a five-week “St. Martin’s Lent” that included fasts and abstaining from sexual intercourse leading up to Christmas.


Advent is now considered the first season of the liturgical year, the church’s annual cycle of feast days and Scripture readings. Much like their ancestors, modern Christians see it as a season of preparation in honor of Christ. Advent is celebrated on four consecutive Sundays, beginning on the Sunday closest to November 30 and ending on December 24, Christmas Eve.


Each Sunday has a traditional meaning and prayers and readings assigned to it; they represent, in order, the Christian virtues of love, joy, hope, and peace. For believers, Advent represents a multi-faceted period during which to prepare for the birth of Christ, celebrate faith in and conversion to Christianity, and anticipate the eventual resurrection of the son of God.


Considered a season of light in the dark apex of winter, Advent is symbolized in the church by a candlelit evergreen wreath. In 1838 Johann Wichern, a German Lutheran pastor, began using this wreath to help his congregation count down the days until Christmas.


The modern Advent wreath has four candles. The first two and the fourth are purple, Advent’s traditional color. The third candle is pink, representing the halfway point of Advent and the joy of the coming holiday.


Christians traditionally pray, sing, and light an additional candle on each Advent Sunday until all of the candles are lit on the fourth Sunday. A fifth, white candle known as the Christ candle sometimes sits unlit in the center of the wreath; it is only lit on Christmas Eve.

Another German Advent tradition is the Advent calendar. During the 19th century, adults began helping children count down the days until Christmas. Beginning on December 1, some German Lutherans made chalk marks on doors in anticipation of the entry of the Christ child, and other parents created homemade ways to count down involving snacks and Bible verses.


In 1908 German printer Gerhard Lang produced the first printed Advent calendar. In his childhood, his mother had handcrafted a calendar with cardboard doors and candy inside. Lang adapted the idea for the printing press, and his wares became extremely popular in Germany. But World War II-related shortages and Nazi Germany’s secular rebranding of Christmas almost killed off the printed Advent calendar.


After the war, another German printer, Richard Sellmer, obtained permission from American occupying forces to print a 1946 Advent calendar. He used his contacts with Americans to introduce the Advent calendar in the United States, and with the help of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was photographed opening one with his grandchildren in 1953, they became increasingly popular in the U.S.


Even though Advent technically begins in late November, modern Advent calendars typically start on December 1 and have small doors or boxes containing pictures, trinkets, or food like chocolate to be opened and consumed in the leadup to Christmas. Retailers have invested big in the Advent calendar game, and consumers can choose Advent calendars centered around beauty, popular characters, or even consumption.


Like other Christmas traditions, Advent calendars became increasingly secularized in the 20th and 21st centuries. But its traditions remain a fun way for both kids and adults to ramp up Christmas delight during a dark, wintry month.


China might not immediately come to mind when you think of Advent, but roughly 5.1% of the population of 1.41 billion is Christian, according to the CIA World Factbook. That’s almost 72 million people. Chinese Christians light up their homes with colorful paper lanterns during Advent, and you might find red paper pagodas cut out and placed in windows. They follow many of the traditions that were brought by Western missionaries. An emerging Christmas tradition is the giving of apples, sometimes sold in stores wrapped in colored paper.


Families across Germany will set up an Advent wreath with four candles, one for each week of Advent. They may gather around the wreath each Sunday to sing carols and light another candle. Stollen, which is similar to fruitcake, is one of the oldest Christmas treat traditions in Germany. And Advent calendars may hold chocolate treats behind little doors for German children.


Along with the wreath and Advent calendars packed with little chocolates, another Hungarian tradition during Advent are the matins. These are a daily Mass held every dawn from the first Sunday of Advent to the first day of Christmas. You may hear it called the Angelic Mass or Golden Mass. A classic Advent treat in Hungary is the beigli. It’s a rolled crust traditionally filled with poppy seeds or walnuts. Hungarians are a music-loving people, and various Christmas concerts are traditionally held around the capital of Budapest and other cities and towns.


Advent in Mexico brings the religious ceremonies known as Las Posadas (Spanish for “The Inns.”) This nine-day celebration that marks the journey of Mary and Joseph is held from December 16 to 24. Each evening in cities and villages across Mexico, a child dressed as an angel leads a processional, usually made up of children. They go to selected homes, where they are denied entry but often given refreshments. This custom is followed in some parts of the United States, too.


For deeply Catholic Poland, Advent brings prayer, fasting and spiritual preparation for Christmas, according to the Polish Women’s Alliance of America. People stay inside during the long, dark evenings making decorations for the Christmas tree and handmade gifts, baking Christmas cookies, and preparing other delicacies for the upcoming holidays. Poles traditionally attend early-morning Masses called roraty. It’s still dark out when they start. Attendees light candles during Mass, symbolizing the coming light of day and salvation. People also set up outdoor booths in village and city squares, decorated in themes of Christmas, where they will pass out candy, little gifts, and cards. Krakow marks the first Sunday of Advent by decorating beautiful Rynek Square with lights, boughs, and garlands.


While many Advent and Christmas traditions go back centuries in the United Kingdom, Christingles is a relatively new observance here. It started with the Moravians in 1740s Germany, but it wasn’t celebrated in the UK until the late 1960s. The word can mean both a symbolic item and a service. You make Christingles from an orange, which you decorate with a candle, red tape, and sweets. The Christingles service might involve prayers, readings and singing. It also serves as a fundraiser for children’s charities. It can be held at the start of Advent all the way to Candlemas, but Christmas Eve is a popular time to hold a service.

Eastern Orthodox churches mark the lead-up to Christmas with a Nativity Fast. It goes from November 15 to December 24 on the Revised Julian Calendar, which follows the Gregorian Calendar that most of the world currently uses. For Orthodox churches that still follow the traditional ancient Julian Calendar, those dates are November 28 to January 6.


However, one of the best places to figure out what Advent should look like is the story of Jesus’ birth in Luke 2. Advent is an opportunity for us to recognise Jesus’ birth and prepare our hearts and minds for His arrival.


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