What Is Advent?

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In December of last year, I did several posts about different Christmas traditions in the U.K., plus one about the Lincoln Christmas market, which will be here again from next Thursday, December 3rd until the Sunday. So I decided to have a look at a couple of traditions I didn’t write about last year. And considering that Advent starts today, Sunday, I’ve put together some information about what Advent means and some of the traditions associated with it.

Trafalgar Square Christmas Tree

Trafalgar Square Christmas Tree. Author: Anneke. Creative Commoms.

Advent starts four weeks before Christmas, beginning on November 30th (St. Andrew’s Day) or the Sunday closest to it. This year it begins on November 29th. The day marks the start of the Christian year and the beginning of the Christmas season for many people in the U.K. Some people even decorate their homes this early, although most leave the household decorating until a week or two before Christmas Eve. In towns and cities, however, Christmas lights and a large Christmas tree in a central place, like a market square, generally appear during the first week of Advent. The huge tree in Trafalgar Square in London is a yearly gift from Norway, in thanks for Britain’s support during the Second World War.

The word Advent comes from the Latin word ‘adventus’, which means ‘arrival’ or ‘coming’ – referring to the birth of Jesus Christ as well as the time that he will come again. The origin of Advent preparations for Christmas is unknown, although it certainly existed by the year 480. It was also introduced by the Council of Tours (in France) in 567 as an order to make the monks fast throughout December until Christmas. Some people believe that Advent goes back as far as the time of the Twelve Apostles; others say it was founded by St. Peter. All in all, it is impossible to say exactly when it began.

Several traditions are followed during Advent – other than decorating homes and towns and sending Christmas cards and so on.  I think everyone is familiar with Advent calendars, as the one in my first picture above. What child doesn’t like to open one of the little doors each day from December 1-24, to see what’s behind?  Some calendars have little Christmassy pictures behind the doors – some showing the Nativity, or having a poem or part of a story relating to it. Others have pictures of teddy bears, Christmas trees, bells, candles, robins, snowmen etc. – anything connected to the season and Christmas celebrations. Nowadays, many Advent calendars simply contain small chocolates.

Styles vary from pieces of card to wooden structures and models that can be used each year.  Advent calendars were first used by German Lutherians in the 19th and 20th centuries, but have since been used by many Christian denominations. Here are some pictures showing different styles:

Christian churches take on a different look during Advent. Instead of the usual flowers that decorate many churches throughout the year, an Advent Wreath (sometimes called an Advent Crown) will be placed inside the church:

These wreaths are made of evergreens, like holly and ivy or some kind of conifer, formed into a circle – which represents God, i.e. no beginning and no end. The ‘evergreen’ itself is a reminder that God does not change, holly also being a reminder of the crown of thorns placed on Christ’s head at his crucifixion. Four candles are set around the circle, plus one in the centre. The candles can be of any colour, the central one generally a different colour to the others. Sometimes, four red and one white candle are used, red being the Christmas colour.

Unlit candles represent darkness. One of the outer candles is lit on the first Sunday of Advent, that one plus another on the second Sunday and so on until all four are lit on the fourth Sunday. On that day, the central candle is also lit, representing Christ as the light of the world.  The other four candles also have meanings and prayers on each of the four Sundays focus on those themes. They are Peace, Hope, Love and Joy.

Also, in Western Christianity during Advent, the usual liturgical colour is either violet / purple or blue. This colour is often used for hangings around the church, the clerical garments and, in some Christian denominations, often the tabernacle.

Censing during solemn vespers. St. Mary's Church, Greenville SC. Author: QuidMestXveritasatEnlish Wikipedia. Public Domain.

Censing during solemn vespers. St. Mary’s Church, Greenville SC. Author: QuidMestXveritasatEnlish Wikipedia. Public Domain.

A Christingle is used in many Christian churches in the U.K. during Advent. It is a symbolic object, its name meaning ‘Christ Light’, and is used to celebrate Jesus Christ as the ‘Light of the World’. The tradition was unknown in England before 1968 – so they weren’t a feature of my childhood Christmases.

Picture of en Christingle. Author: TimmywimmyatEngloishWikimedia. Public Domain.

Picture of en Christingle. Author: TimmywimmyatEnglishWikimedia. Public Domain.

The various parts of a Christingle represent different things. The round orange itself represents the world and the candle represents Jesus as the light of the world. The red ribbon (Christian faith) goes all the way round the world, its colour being a reminder that Christ died. The four cocktail sticks have two meanings: the four corners of the world or the four seasons. And lastly, the sweets (or dried fruits are sometimes used) are a  reminder of God’s gifts to the world, including love and kindness. (The small circle of aluminium foil at the base of the candle is purely for collecting drops of hot wax.)

Christingles have now been part of Advent celebrations in the U.K. for 47 years. It was John Pensom of The Children’s Society who introduced it to the Church of England in 1968. He adapted the form we see today from the original idea used by Bishop Johannes de Watteville in Marienborn, Germany in 1747. The bishop wanted to find a way to explain to children the happiness that comes through believing in Jesus. In his children’s service, he gave each child a lighted candle wrapped in a red ribbon whilst he said the prayer, ‘Lord Jesus, kindle a flame in these children’s hearts that theirs like thine become’.

There are other traditions associated with Advent, including the singing of Christmas carols such as O Come O Come Emmanuel and Lo, he comes with clouds descending, at church services. There are also some old ‘folk traditions’, both in the U.K. and other European countries that I could talk about, but I’ll not go into all of those here. I’ll just mention the most familiar one in Britain, which dates back to the Middle Ages. The custom was for poor women to carry around the Advent images: two dolls dressed as the Virgin Mary and Jesus. Anyone to whom these dolls were shown was expected to give a halfpenny (ha’penny). It was believed that bad luck would strike any household not visited by these ‘doll bearers’ before Christmas Eve. Not a pleasant thought to carry with you into the New year . . .

Refs: Wikipedia

Top Marks

The Children’s Society (re. the introduction of the Christingle into England)

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About milliethom

I am a reader and writer of historical fiction with a keen interest in the Earth's history and all it involves, both physically and socially. I like nothing better than to be outdoors, especially in faraway places, and baking is something I do when my eyes need respite from my computer screen.
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64 Responses to What Is Advent?

  1. Ann Koplow says:

    Thanks for this informative post, Millie!

  2. Really fascinating Millie, I never really thought about Advent really but it is fascinating to learn about how it is celebrated in different cultures and the many traditions.

    • milliethom says:

      Thank you, Suzanne. Yes, there are so many different Christmas traditions around the world, particularly across all the European countries. That might just be a task fo me for next year. I’m not sure about the USA and Australia, either. There may be some traditions followed where you are, for example, that we don’t have in the UK. It’s really interesting finding out about these things. 🙂

      • The US is such a melting pot there are many variations here. No matter where or how it’s a wonderful time of year!!

      • milliethom says:

        Yes, it is wonderful. The UK is also a melting pot, and we have so many different religions here now. Some cities -like Leicester, with a big Hindu population – still have all the Diwali decorations up. They’ll probably still be up with the Christmas ones. I’ll have to do some research on American traditions, although some will be the same as the ones here. 🙂

  3. ane says:

    Great blog , valuable information and excellent ideas. Many thanks, Millie!

  4. Frances 🌺 says:

    Beautiful post and just perfect for the start of Advent ✨✨✨

  5. Another great post, l love reading about Christmas. It is such a lovely time of the year! 🎄

    • milliethom says:

      I love Christmas, too, and it’s such a wonderful time for children. I did some Christmas posts last year and I don’t want to repeat them this time. I have a few more ideas, so I’ll see what I can make of those. Thanks, Daniela. 🙂

  6. I love this post! My son made an advent calendar for my parents last year and it is so nice! We will put it up again this year! Lovely pictures as well Millie!

  7. Joy Pixley says:

    Interesting post, Millie! I’d never heard of the Christingle tradition before. What do people do with them after the service?

    • milliethom says:

      Good question! As far as I know they just take them home to use as a decoration until after Christmas. At least, that’s what schoolchildren do after Christmas services. 🙂 Hope your last day of NaNo goes well!

      • Joy Pixley says:

        I was thinking that the oranges would start to go bad, since they’ve been cut into. And also that it would be hard for the kids to resist eating the candies!

      • milliethom says:

        You’re probably right. The Christingles my children made at school when they were young just got thrown away. The candies/sweets had gone soft by the time they’d been on display in the classroom for over a week, so they wouldn’t have wanted to eat those. Ditto with the oranges. They look nice for a while, I suppose. It’s a strange tradition. As I said, it wasn’t a part of my childhood, but thins are always changing. Come to think of it, there’s a lot about Christmas that’s different now. Still, I do love the family aspects of it all.

  8. Informative post, Millie! I enjoyed reading and learning some more about the different traditions 🙂

  9. Beth says:

    Very interesting, Millie. I hope you’ll write more about those other traditions too:0)).

    • milliethom says:

      Thank you, Beth. I’ll be doing a couple more ‘Christmassy’ posts, but I won’t repeat the themes I did last year – unless I come up with a brainwave for a completely new approach! Lol I still can’t access your site, so is it still private? If you’ve posted and I missed it, it’s because I rarely check my Reader at the moment. Hope you got the problems with your site sorted out, anyway. 🙂

  10. Lina says:

    I really liked this post! Loved the way you write☺

  11. What a great post to start the Christmas season! As you mentioned, our church altar is draped in purple, as are the priests’ garments. The church also has an Advent Wreath with three purple candles and one pink on a stand adjacent to the altar. In our home, the advent calendar is made of little wooden doors framing a metal background scene. Each day, as another door is opened, reveals a magnetic “character” from the Nativity… lambs, stars, wise men, shepherd, angels, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. The kids have fun manipulating the characters and rearranging the Nativity scene throughout the month. I have never heard of Christingles, but love the idea behind them. We are going to have to try making them here!

    • milliethom says:

      I’ve always loved Christmas, especially when our six children were all little. What fun we had playing Father Christmas! There are some lovely old traditions, although the Christingle one is quite new, as traditions go. They can be decorated in other ways, too. I’ve seen some with ribbons going round from north to south on the orange as well as around the equator. This is often instead of using cocktail sticks (which are very sharp, if young children are about). Then cloves are stuck in all over the orange, instead of the sweets/candies on the sticks. I couldn’t find a free image to share, so I left that out. If I find one, I’ll add it to my post then.
      Your advent calendar sounds lovely, and having magnetic characters is a great idea so that kiddies can move them around. Children do love the Nativity scene, especially having done plays about it at school.
      I hope you enjoyed your Thanksgiving and are now well recovered from non-stop cooking! The month ahead is likely to be busy, too, with all the build up to Christmas.It’s already getting manic aroud the shops in Lincoln and Newark – the part I really don’t like. I hate being half trampled to death. Hope your Christingles turn out well. I’ve found smaller candles are better, too – like the ones used on birthday cakes or just a bit bigger.
      Thank you for that great comment, Jean! I’ll pop over to your blog and check out posts I’ve missed very soon.

  12. Great post Millie. Informative as always. I wonder how many people who celebrate Christmas know anything more about the traditions and beliefs around it?

    • milliethom says:

      There are many great traditions from different countries around the world. I know some of the European ones, especially those from Scandinavia. I had a Swedish girl in my tutor group one year and she delighted us with a couple. I am just focusing on British customs at the moment. Perhaps when I run out, I’ll look further afield! It would be very nice if other people shared their customs, though. Thanks, Bekki. 😀

  13. Millie, we lit the first candle (Hope) of Advent on Sunday. I’d never heard of Christingles, but would love to make them with the children in our Church. Once again, thanks for being so inspiring! Clare

  14. Nicely presented tradition! It is good to know why you do what you do.

  15. milliethom says:

    You’re absolutely right. In Britain we have traditions coming out of our ears and it’s good to delve into their origins, which are often very interesting. Thank you so much for reading.

  16. What a wonderful post Millie! ❤ I always love Advent calendars, but never knew what Advent really means and didn't know it starts 4 weeks before Christmas. It's interesting to know all the detailed information through this post. 🙂

    • milliethom says:

      Yes, the first day of Advent is the beginning of the Christmas season, so for the next few weeks it be quite chaotic around the shops. But it’s also very colourful, with lights and Christmas trees everywhere. It’s a wonderful time for children, too. I’m glad my post helped you to know a little more about what Advent means, anyway. Thank you for the lovely comment, Khloe.

      • You’re most welcome Millie. The lights, decorations and Christmas trees are what make Christmas very fascinating and as you said a wonderful time for children😍.

      • milliethom says:

        Christmas is what makes the middle of our dreary northern winters seem bearable. The midwinter fesivals in Scandinavian lands date back hundreds of years. The Christian festivals simply replaced them in later years. I really should do a post sometime about that! Thank you for your comment, Khloe. As always, it’s much appreciated. 🙂

  17. DG MARYOGA says:

    Good question Millie and an interesting post!I have seen you have some more new posts apart from this one and I want to read up all of them,not simply to read them.Right now,it’s 5:55 pm in Greece and soon the sun will come out.So,I’d like to have enough time to enjoy them.See you tomorrow.Thank you 🙂

  18. Lovely post on advent, loved all the symbolism too.

    • milliethom says:

      Thank you so much, Chioma. It’s funny just how many traditions are associated with Advent. It really is all part ot the wonderful build up to Christmas Day. Christingle services in churches are quite common nowadays, although they were unheard of when I was young. I agree that the symolism is really interesting.

  19. DG MARYOGA says:

    Oh,dear Millie,what an enlightening and well written post,my friend!I have read it twice up to now and I have learnt so many things about Advent and the customary symbolism and decorations.As an ardent traditionalist I always like to delve into the details and find out how and why they started.As you know,we,in Greece,are members of the Orthodox Church and we have different customs and traditions with some of them going back into ancient times and before Christ’s birth.But if we go deep down we can see that the core is absolutely the same.All of them and of any religion teach and celebrate the same things,the essence is one and only one.That’s why I am not dogmatic at all and I like studying and learning the “different”.We have some friends in the UK who are Methodists and I know all about the Advent Wreaths and the candles.They sent us recently a photo with the Advent Wreath and some robins on it.I so much liked the symbolism of the wreath.Yes,our God like a circle,no beginning no end.I like your holistic approach to everything and that you mentioned everything with respect to anything different.If I go on praising you and your article,I will never end.It was so interesting and well-organised.Happy weekend,my friend.

    • milliethom says:

      Thank you so much, Doda. Like you, I love to delve into customs and traditions from all parts of the world, including those from different religions. I would never try to influence people one way or the other regarding beliefs. I would present Hindu or Buddhist customs in much the same way as I do Christian ones of the various denominations. I find them all fascinating. It’s lovely that you have Methodist friends in the UK. Advent wreaths are used in most denominations here. The Christingle is relatively new to Britain, but is popular at particular services, most aimed at children. Christmas is a wonderful time, no matter which branch of Christianity you follow. I would love to find out about some of the traditions in the Orthodox Church, although, as you say, the essence of all branches of Christianity are the same. Thank you again for reading my post. I enjoyed writing it as my first ‘Christmassy’ post this year. Enjoy the rest of your weekend, too.

      • DG MARYOGA says:

        It has been ages since I contacted you,I was away from WP for a couple of days and I’m trying hard to catch up!Thank you so much for your rich response!I absolutely agree with your viewpoints,religion belief is a very delicate and personal matter.

      • milliethom says:

        Catching up is always hard to do. I’ve found the same, after I’ve been away from home for a while. No one will expect to to read every post you miss, Doda. Some people post every day – some more than once – and it does become too much to manage.

  20. Aquileana says:

    Truly interesting and informative post, dear Millie… I much enjoyed learning about this ceremony and the liturgical elements-such as, for example, the Christingle- related to it…
    All my best wishes. Aquileana 🌟 –

    • milliethom says:

      Thank you, Aquileana. Yes, the Christingle services look very pretty, and children love to make them. I’d never heard of them myself until my own children made them at school in the 1980s. Best wishes to you, too. 🙂

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