Advent Traditions — Four Candles on a Wreath and Calendars

The four weeks or so before Christmas, also known as Advent, bring with them some traditions in this part of the world that you may not be familiar with from your home country. But once you get to know them, they may also help you enjoy this festive season.

What is Advent?

The word “advent” is derived from the Latin word adventus, which means arrival and was typically used to denote the presence or arrival of kings or emperors. Now, it refers to the weeks heralding the arrival of Jesus, whose birth is celebrated on Christmas. Thus, the Advent tradition is based in the Christian religion. Its earliest origins date back to the 5th century, and around the beginning of the 6th century, pope Gregory the Great set the duration of the Advent period to four weeks. Thus, the first Sunday of Advent is defined as the 4th Sunday before December 25 and may fall anywhere between November 27 and December 3. This year, the Advent period starts on December 3, so the latest date possible, and the fourth Sunday of Advent coincides with Christmas Eve.

Since the 8th century, the first Sunday of Advent also marks the beginning of the liturgical year of the Western Christian churches. As a result, each of the four Sundays of Advent has a specific meaning and theme for the associated readings. But beyond its relevance in the Christian churches, advent traditions have evolved in Germany and neighboring countries over the past 200 years that now have become mainstays of the season even for many families who have no strong Christian beliefs. The most prominent ones of these are the Adventskranz (advent wreath) and the Adventskalender (advent calendar).

Advent Wreaths

Towards the end of November, you will see them popping up in grocery stores, gardening centers, and department stores—wreaths mostly made from pine branches and often decorated with four candles and various other decorations. The four candles represent the four Sundays of Advent. On the first Sunday (and every day of the following week), you light just one candle; on the second, you light two; and so on—providing a visible indication that Christmas is getting closer and closer.

The tradition reportedly originated in a children’s home in Hamburg, Germany, where in 1838 theologist Johann Hinrich Wichern lit a new candle for each day of Advent to symbolize that Christ was the “Light of the World.” Later, the candles were placed on wooden rings and then on pine wreaths. The number of candles subsequently was reduced to four for just the Advent Sundays. In 1925, the first advent wreath was displayed in a Catholic church in Köln, Germany. The practice since has spread to families and churches around the world.

Nowadays, you find advent wreaths in all shapes and sizes. The most traditional version is still the pine wreath decorated with four red candles and perhaps some small pine cones. You can buy them at the store already decorated, buy a plain wreath to decorate yourself, or make your own from scratch. And in that case, you are only limited by your imagination. The “wreath” can be made from pine branches, willow branches, metal, wood, or any other material you like, or it can even be replaced by an interestingly shaped piece of wood or a simple plate. You will still be looking for four candles, though, and many stores now sell sets of different-size candles so that you start with the tallest one on the first Sunday, then the next tallest on the second Sunday and so on, ensuring that by the end of the Advent period they are all pretty much an even size. As for the rest of the decorations, you can use whatever best suits your taste, from natural materials such as pine cones, cinnamon sticks, nuts, or star aniseed to bows and any kind of small Christmas ornament you like. Let yourself be inspired by what you see in the stores and magazine specials that can be found everywhere!

Advent Calendars

Advent calendars are a tradition from the beginning of the 20th century that is particularly attractive to children (but not only them) as it allows them to count down the days until Christmas. They contain 24 windows (or packages), often marked with the numbers 1 to 24, one of which they can open on each day from December 1 to December 24. The tradition again originated in Germany, where the first calendar was printed in Hamburg in 1902 in the shape of a clock counting down to Christmas. The first printed calendars with windows you could open were published around 1920, and the first chocolate-filled calendars became available around 1958.

Today, as with the advent wreaths, advent calendars can take all shapes and sizes. The simplest type are printed ones ranging from post-card size to large wall hangings with 24 windows, one to open each day to reveal the picture underneath. You can find really artful ones that appeal not only to children but also to adults at the book stores—but be warned, they can get quite expensive! Then there are the chocolate-filled calendars you find mainly at the supermarket and which are always a favorite with the kids. For children you also can find calendars filled with little toys, and for adults there is a wide variety filled with anything from semiprecious gem stones to small liquor bottles. And of course you can make your own advent calendar for your children and/or your partner. How about buying 24 small presents and wrapping them, hanging them up along a string along the mantle of your fireplace? Or writing small notes or poems that you fold up into matchboxes or the like that you decorate to your taste and ability? Or buying a jigsaw puzzle for your child with several hundred pieces and distributing them into 24 packages so that the puzzle is finished on Christmas Eve? Again, the only limit is your imagination!

Perhaps you want to introduce some of these traditions in your family. But however you choose to spend these weeks leading up to Christmas, we wish you a happy and enjoyable Advent season!