Christian Spirituality > Church Year > Advent and Christmas
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The journey from Advent 1 to Epiphany unfolds as all good stories should, step by step, so we don't get too stunned by the awesome truth it bears. There's enough direct truth there to keep us on track and focused on it, and enough mystery and open room to fire the imagination -- from ordinary imaginations like mine, to great imaginations like T.S. Eliot and Dr. Seuss, to transcendent imaginations like your average 6-year old. And in 2012, Advent starts on Sunday, December 2. That means Advent 2 is on December 9, Advent 3 is on December 16, and Advent 4 is on December 23. (The number means the week, thus Advent 2 is shorthand for "Second Sunday in Advent" or "Second Week of Advent", and so on.) Epiphany (also known as 'Three Kings Day') will be on 06 January 2013, which in 2013 falls on a Sunday. That happens only one-seventh of the time. When it falls on other days, many Protestant and Pentecostal churches celebrate it on the nearest Sunday. The Eastern Orthodox use a Julian calendar and their Advent is 40 days, starting on 15 November 2012.
The word 'advent' is Latin for 'a coming or arrival'. The idea behind it is that God came to earthly life and lived among us, which is news to stop the presses for. It's something to celebrate, rejoice, because just by being in it, God was giving the supreme blessing to the created world. But this birth led to an execution of this same God, by us on behalf of us, and then the greatest news that death will not end it all. So it's not something you just go rushing into. We need to take stock of what that baby Jesus was here for. When we go all goo-goo over the baby and the birth, the adult Jesus and His execution are also in sight.
Advent is a season of preparation. So's Lent, but it is a different kind of preparation. In Lent, each of us prepares for what happened on Good Friday (execution) and Easter (resurrection). Lent is very adult and serious, because it leads to a death; originally, Lent readied new Christian adults for baptism. In Advent, we thank God for Christ's first coming, prepare for his final coming at the end of time, and celebrate Christ's presence among us today through the Spirit. God loved us and wanted to share that love. But this existence isn't well-suited for a god; it's too broken, evil, painful, unjust. So, to rescue the created world from this evil, God chose to come here and walk the earth, to grow up, to live the truth, and to die. The only way to start such a thing is as a baby, and the only way to be a baby is to be born. Hence Christmas. Because Christmas is centered in the new hope brought by a baby, it's very much a holiday for children, and became all the more so with the development of toys as Christmas gifts. Because it leads us up to that baby, Advent is also child-oriented.
There's a time to get ready by focusing on your own sinfulness and wrongdoing, a time for personal transformation and following Christ to the cross. That's Lent. There's a time to get ready by rejoicing that our God is not far away and unfamiliar with the struggles of human life, that Christ is here right now among His followers, that God has already begun to bring in the Kingdom, and that Christ will come again to make it clear who really runs the place. That's Advent. "Lo, I am with you, even unto the end of the age", says Jesus.
Advent, as we know it today, is a creation of the Western churches that looked to Rome for leadership. There were two main streams flowing into it. The first came out of France, during the fourth century AD, probably from Celtic monks. A period of about six weeks before Christ's Mass was used as a penitential and devotional period, a lesser Lent. The second stream came from Rome, where there was a practice of having a three-to-six week fast during which they had to come to church regularly. This was a fast before the feast of Christmas time.
The current form of Advent crystallized under Pope Gregory I, who set the current four-week length, and wrote liturgical materials for use in Advent. By the 10th century, the Celtic 'get ready' prayers and practices had been fully brought into the Roman form. Later on, the church adopted a system of liturgical colors, and Advent received a purple color not unlike Lent's. The 20th century brought a rediscovery of joy in Advent preparations. This was signaled among Protestants by using the color blue (with or without a touch of red in it). Some highly-Catholic areas (for example, in parts of the Philippines) hold special services on the nine days before Christmas (starting 16 December), as a worship novena.
The Eastern Orthodox have a preparation for Christmas, too, called the Nativity Fast. It starts the day after the 14 November St. Philip the Apostle's Feast, and goes 40 days until 24 December. It's much more like Western-Church Lent than Advent, though it is not as strict as the Orthodox's Great Lent. Like in Lent, the Nativity Fast's purpose is to prepare through repentance, and it is a somber period. It is not somber on the Forefeast of the Nativity (20-23 December), when Nativity hymns are sung every day, and when the Russian Orthodox put up happy hangings and symbols in their churches. (This is when the Orthodox holy season feels most like the Catholic or Protestant Advent.) The strictest day is 24 December, the Nativity Paramony, when no solid food is eaten until after the Vespers service that evening.
Advent has fallen on hard times. For most people, it's become a time to get ready for whatever you're doing with family and friends on Christmas, and not a time to get ready for the Christ child. The bigger Christmas became, the more it swallowed up Advent. In fact, whatever Christmas-y thing we think of as being done before Christmas Day is actually done in Advent. In the US, everything after Thanksgiving is now seen as a part of Christmas. The main problem is not that Christmas intrudes on Advent or the other way around. The meaning of Advent is found in Christmas. The real problem is that people no longer keep their Christmas focus on Christ, and then the Christless Christmas saps Christ from Advent. Practicing Advent as a religious season may help recover Christmas, but it can't do it by itself. If you don't look to Jesus every day in every season, you'll lose Advent, Christmas, Lent, and even Easter. It becomes a tiring drudge, not a loving celebration, full of hurrying not anticipation. It becomes about family or money or image or spending and not our loving Maker. There are even some who openly advocate letting the world have its Christmas, and then Christians can do their own separate thing on Epiphany. (That would bring them nearly in synch with the old-calendar Orthodox.) But that, of course, chucks Advent as well as Christmas.
Christmas is a day of joy, and much of what the non-Christian culture brings to the mix is also full of joy and thus fits well into a Christian context. If you've been to Rockefeller Center in New York City, you know how great the decorations can be -- the Christmas tree, the lights on the buildings, the large herald angels with their trumpets, all big enough to seem to an adult like the big world itself seems to a child. Such wonders fully belong in the celebrations of Christians and everyone else. But as you think on that, remember that each Christian has as much right as anyone else to put their stamp on the public culture - that's an important matter of our human freedom, and it needs to be vigorously exercised or it too will be lost.
Active Christians do special things to mark the holy purposes of the Advent season. Many churches have Wednesday night services like those during Lent, only with a lot more praise, joy, and song. Those who come are often invited to confess their sins before a priest or minister and then celebrate release from those sins, or to join in group prayers afterward. Choirs practice music in a more-classical vein, especially Handel's Messiah. Chapels and prayer rooms open longer. In 'liturgical' churches, there's always some arguing between worship leaders and laity about whether Christmas hymns can be sung during Advent. The usual compromise is that the Christmas songs start coming in one or two Sundays before Christmas.
In the U.S., most people start their Christmas after Thanksgiving Day (the fourth Thursday of November), though catalog firms and retailers try to move it up to the start of November for profit's sake. (Here in 2011, the economic crisis has caused more stores than ever to Christmasize November.) Thanksgiving Day is actually quite appropriate for Advent, even though it is a few days before the season starts. Advent is a preparation, and the best way to start preparing is with a thankful heart.
In Advent, as in the rest of the year, Christians remember leading figures in their history. The primary saint of the season is Nicholas of Myra (modern Demre, Turkey), on 06 December. It was celebration of his day and his reputation for giving gifts to children which bred the name and task of Santa Claus. He apparently had very wealthy parents who died in one of the epidemics that were common back then. He got the inheritance, but started giving it away to the poor, the sick, children, and sailors. He was jailed for several years by the Emperor (as were most Christian leaders - if they weren't killed). When he was released, he was quite thin, but went right back to his giving ways. He was one of the bishops at the Council of Nicaea in 325. He died in 343 AD. Lucia (13 December) is marked by the baking and eating of special cakes, and a celebration of all sorts of lights (partly pagan in origin, and ultimately rooted in the aurora). Though she was Sicilian, her day is much celebrated in Scandinavia. Ambrose of Milan (07 December) was a bishop, an intellectual, and a key figure in shaping beliefs about Christ. The feast day for Daniel and the 3 Young Men (17 December) is of special significance to Orthodox and Eastern-rite churches. The disciple Thomas has his day on 21 December; it's a good day to think and pray about discerning, testing, and asking questions about what is happening around us, especially what's being taught about God.
The day after Christmas (26 December) is the day of the first Christian martyr, Stephen; it was placed right after Christmas amidst our joy to remind us of those who died to bring it to us. In some traditions, Stephen's feast day is when they visit extended family and friends. In England, St. Stephen's Day is known as Boxing Day, which was originally the day that the churches opened up their holiday collection boxes and distributed the contents to the poor and needy. Boxing Day is also a time for pantomime, acting out traditional stories with stock characters.
Because Christmas has become the most important holiday of all in the traditionally-Christian countries, Advent has become a preparation not just for the Christ child but also for everything else that happens Christmas day. Most people spend all four weeks of Advent (and then some!) buying or making gifts to give out for Christmas, scheduling Christmas travel, and setting up the bounties of the big Christmas meal. By the time it's over, we need a vacation from the holiday! In colder, wintry countries, Christmastide is when we celebrate what winter holds in store -- snow, skis, sleds, warm drink, icicles, glittering ice-covered trees, fireplaces, snowmen, snowball fights, skating, and a refreshing nip in the air.
Everyone has their favorite holiday foods. Good old-fashioned puddings are made in advance with sweet soft fruit such as raisins, currants, citrus peels, figs, pomegranites, and prunes, plus brandy, and then jarred and chilled to age several days to a week, so that the flavors meld. Mince pies are made of a dried fruit mix, and sometimes finely chopped lamb or venison. (The meatless, low-fat varieties are most common today.)
A Gaelic custom is to bake cakes during the last week of Advent, store them, then take them out just before Christmas to spread on almond paste and/or a sweet goo such as cake frosting or honey. On the days before Christmas, Europeans bake plaited breads in a long oval shape, to look like a well-wrapped Christ child. Just as Lent is a fast, Christmas is a feast.
In some traditions, such as in the Phillipines, families start the Christmas feast right after returning from the late-night or midnight Christ's Mass. The typical fare there is some form of ham, cheese balls, and hot cocoa.
Quite possibly the most fun during this season of joy is found when caroling. Most caroling today is done between Advent 2 and 4, far enough away from Christmas day so that people still have time for their Christmas preparations but not so far away as to miss the feel of the season. Carols are about Christmas more than Advent, and include mainly well-known hymns and popular-style songs, some of which are not at all religious (it's always been that way), and a few of which aren't at all merry (especially the medieval songs). Caroling also involves cheery greetings, comraderie, a lot of walking, meeting strangers and shut-ins, and simple old-style dances. It's a great way to get to know each other, learn your neighborhood, and do a lot of blissful singing. It's usually done acappella, but occasionally with bells or tambourine, although in earlier times it was often accompanied by a lute. Even bad singers can carol! Just remember, it's a no-grump zone. Caroling became popular in the Northern Hemisphere's cold-weather areas, so the traditions reflect the needs of shivering carolers. Somewhere near (or at) the end, the carolers often receive a cup of cheer - hot liquid refreshment such as apple cider with cinnamon, or cocoa with whipped cream or marshmallows, warm egg nog (spiked with rum or whiskey and spiced with vanilla, nutmeg, and/or ginger), glögg (a warm spiced wine drink from Scandinavia), or espresso cappucino coffee. Or, a warm root beer mixed with 20% Dr. Pepper, cinnamon, and a small amount of fruit punch. I'm partial to an alcohol-free hot cider drink amply spiced with ginger, cinnamon, and a dash of nutmeg. Usually there's finger-food and cake to go with it. That way, there are warmed bodies to go with the warm spirits and the cold weather.
A common Advent tradition is that of the Advent wreath. The wreath is made of evergreen branches with four candleholders and candles, often hung from the ceiling. Since in Advent we're waiting for the Christ child, there needs to be a ceremonial way to mark the time and make us aware of the wait. Lighting a candle reminds us of Christ as light of the world. As the candle is lit, it's customary to sing a verse or two of "O Come O Come Emmanuel". One candle is lit for each Sunday in Advent: one on the first Sunday, two on the second, and so on. Some in high-church circles frown on Advent wreaths in the sanctuary and lighting ceremonies during worship. Where that happens, those ceremonies can still be a part of your worship at home. The kids can have lots of fun making the wreath. For fire safety at home, it's usually better to put the candles on a separate candle-holder instead of on the wreath, putting the holder where it is kept away from flammables. (We moderns are much clumsier with candles than our ancestors, for whom candles were a part of everyday life.) Use a five-candle holder with a place for a middle candle, then put in four red candles (one for each Sunday in Advent) and one white candle (for lighting on Christmas day), lit in the same pattern as for the wreath. On Christmas day, all four red ones are lit, and then the Christmas candle.
In Latino countries, the days before Christmas are marked by the posada, the journey of Mary and Joseph to find shelter in the days before Jesus' birth. The people playing the roles go from house to house, being turned away at each, until a house takes them in -- with a party ready to start upon their arrival.
Another common tradition is that of decorating and blessing their Christmas tree. The Sundays before Christmas (Advent 3 or 4) are often set aside for this task. Decorations include colored lights, balls (originally used to reflect a tree's candlelight in a dazzling way), tinsel (resembling the glittering icicles found on fir trees in icy lands), chrismons (wood, foam, or embroidered symbols and monograms for Christ), and on top, a star. Traditionally, the house decorations stay up until Epiphany, 12 days after Christmas. The tree may have to come down slightly earlier if it dries out. The fragrance released when the tree is removed is memorably refreshing. The tar from the fallen needles may prove hard to remove from a shag rug. Korean Christians often put cotton 'snow' on their decorations.
The use of trees and decorations are rooted in Europe's pre-Christian religions. The pagan customs were transformed by the early missionaries so that they express some aspect of Christian belief. Sometimes, the meaning was much the same as the pagans treasured, but drawn through Christ. In other cases, the old meaning was deliberately turned inside-out to bring further honor to God and more cause for the people to celebrate. In any case, the tradition of trees, lights, and decorations has caught on everywhere, even among some non-Christian Asians who find that they really enjoy decorating for the season.
Advent is also when many families start making their own crèche or manger scene. Francis of Assisi is said to have popularized the crèche. In Poland, there is a yearly competition on building the best crèche.
In one modern turn on the old tradition, a family does not make the crèche all at once, but piece by piece, with each family member adding a piece, one a day in front of the family, telling the significance of each piece, until only the Christ Child and manger are missing. Then the manger is added -- but with no baby and no straw. The baby needs a bed of straw, so the children are asked to do good things for others. For each such deed, they would get a straw to add to the manger. Hopefully, by Christmas eve, there would be a bed of straw to lay the baby Jesus figurine into.
The Moravians created the Advent star, which symbolizes the star that led the Wise Men to Jesus, who is "the bright and morning star" (Revelation 22:16). This star first started in the 1850s near the traditional Moravian home area of Herrnhut.
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Blog us about your favorite part of the Christmas season, the traditions that mark it, the practices you find most beneficial or most fun.
Advent 1st Sunday mp3.
St. Nicholas' Day
2nd Sunday of Advent mp3.
3rd Sunday in Advent mp3.
4th Sunday in Advent mp3.
Christ's Mass (Dec. 25).
St. Stephen's Day (Dec. 26).
Epiphany (Jan. 06 2012; mostly celebrated the nearest Sunday, which is Jan. 8 2012).
These devotionals are designed for use in personal time with God before worship services during Advent. Read the Bible passage (click the link: it comes up in a separate window), then think about the passage, then read the devotional. When done, you can use your own prayer, or the one at the end. Some of them also have challenges; consider those, too, if you dare. The devotionals follow the tradition of having Midweek services (usually Wednesdays) during Advent.
Try this: after you're done with each devotional, what song comes to mind? (Don't censor it -- go with it. Maybe even sing it.)
More on the church calendar.
Try these pages that touch on the themes found in this season :
Ho! Ho!! Ho!!!! Merry Christmas,
and a grand New Year!
Maligayang Pasko! Blithe Yule!
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|ver.: 24 October 2012
Advent-Christmas Season. Copyright © 2001-2012 by Robert Longman.
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