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What Advent Really Means
How to celebrate this ancient tradition.
As Christmas draws near, one of the fixtures of the season are "Advent" calendars. These are often colourful images printed on cardboard with windows, numbered from 1-24, that are opened to reveal a tiny chocolate. Others are wall hangings with pockets, also numbered from 1-24, where a small object is moved from day to day.
Though marketed as "Advent" calendars, most of these have one thing in common. While they all count down to Christmas, they have nothing to do with Advent at all!
Advent is a deeply symbolic Christian tradition that may date back as far as AD 480, with the tradition firmly established in Germany around AD 753. It is a time of preparation and penance before celebrating the joy of the birth of Christ on Christmas Day.
Join me now in learning more about Advent, and how you and your family can add these traditions to your own.
What is Advent?
What does Advent mean?
The word "Advent" is from the latin word adventus, which refers to a coming, or approach. When used to describe the period before Christmas, it means "the coming of Christ into the world." It is a time Christians use to prepare themselves to celebrate the coming of Christ on Christmas Day, through penance and prayer.
Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas, so it doesn't start on the same day every year. This means it can start anywhere from Nov. 27 to Dec. 3. In 2013, Advent begins on Dec. 1, while in 2014 it will begin Nov. 30.
The heart of celebrating Advent in the home is the Advent wreath. Everything about the wreath is symbolic of the coming of Christ, from the materials used to the colours and more. You can make your own Advent wreath as a fun and educational activity to do with your children.
Making an Advent Wreath - What the symbols mean.
These are the things you'll need to make your own wreath, along with their meanings.
Materials to make your own Advent Wreath
Save time by buying a complete Advent Wreath.
- A plain, evergreen wreath: The circle of the wreath symbolizes eternity, and is a reminder that God has no beginning or end. The evergreens are used to represent life, and to remind us of the unchanging nature of God.
You can make a wreath from scratch, using floral foam and wire, and real or artificial greenery, or you can simply buy one. I actually found it more economical to buy a plain wreath for ours (pictured at the top).
- Candles with holders: Four candles are used, one for each Sunday before Christmas. Three are in purple, which symbolizes penance, but also represents royalty. One candle is pink or rose, which symbolizes joy. Some Protestant traditions use four blue candles, instead. The four candles are placed equidistant from each other, in or on the wreath. They can be attached to the wreath using ribbons of matching colours.
A fifth, white, candle can be used as well. Placed in the centre of the wreath, it is lit on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.
- The First Candle is purple and represents Hope. In some traditions, it is called the Prophecy Candle. In others, it represents the Patriarchs. It reminds us that our hope is from God, who is faithful and keeps His promises.
- The Second Candle is also purple. It represents Peace or Faith. It is also known as the Bethlehem Candle or the Candle of Preparation. In some traditions, it represents the Prophets. It reminds us to prepare ourselves for the Coming of Christ, born in Bethlehem, and the fulfillment of God's promise to us.
- The Third Candle is pink. It represents Joy and is also known as the Shepherd's Candle. Lighting it reminds us of the songs of Joy the angels (a word that means "messenger") sang to the shepherds in the field, announcing the birth of our Saviour. In other traditions, it represents John the Baptist, who prepared the way for Jesus.
- The Fourth Candle is purple again, and represents Love. It is also known as the Angel Candle, symbolising Peace, and in some traditions it represents Mary, the mother of Jesus. This candle reminds us that God, out of His Love for us, sent His only Son to redeem us.
- The Fifth Candle is white. This is the Christ Candle, reminding us that Christ is the Light of the World, the spotless Lamb of God, sent to wash away our sins.
- Optional: Small, subtle decorations to decorate the wreath. Advent is a joyful time, but also a time of penance and reflection on humanity's fallen nature, and the reason Jesus had to come to redeem us from our sins. With this in mind, you may wish to add a decoration or two to the wreath each day a new candle is lit, using natural elements such as pine cones, dried flowers or seed pods.
Or, buy a plain wreath you can decorate as much or as little as you wish.
When buying candles for our own wreath, I was surprised to discover no one seemed to carry pink or purple taper candles! I wish I'd known this ahead of time, so I could have ordered a set online in time for Advent.
Add a white candle in the centre for the Christ Candle. You could use a plain white taper, or a pillar candle like this, for a different look.
These small holders will remain hidden in the wreath's greenery. They come in 2 packs, to remember to order enough for the number of candles you plan to use.
What to do to Celebrate Advent - Use these traditions to help keep your family grounded in the true reason for celebrating Christmas.
The fourth Sunday before Christmas is the First Sunday of Advent. Here are some of the things you can do with your family throughout Advent. It's a great way to avoid the stress and commercialism that has so taken over this incredible celebration.
source for the prayers below can be found here.
Time required: 21-28 days, depending on the calendar year
- Advent wreath with candles
- Strips of paper, about 3-4 inches long and about 1 inch wide, one strip for each day of Advent.
- Tape or glue
- Small decorations for the wreath, preferably natural ones such as pine cones, dried flowers or seed pods.
- A Bible
Do you celebrate Advent?
1. Here's an actiivity children will enjoy. Take the strips of paper - they can be whatever colour you wish, or you can stick to pink and purple - and grab your pen. On each strip, write the name of a person or cause you and your family wishes to pray for. This can be a friend or family member in need, or an area of the world that is going through a disaster, etc.
After each strip has something written on it, use the tape or glue to attach the ends into loops, joining the loops to make a long chain. Hang the chain someplace easily accessible.
2. If you wish, you can say a blessing over the Advent wreath shortly before the beginning of Advent. Place the wreath in the centre of your dining table (or if you don't have one, in any location the family can gather around). Here is an example of a prayer you can use, which is typically said by the head of the household.
O God, by whose word all things are sanctified,
pour forth thy blessing upon this wreath
and grant that we who use it may prepare our hearts
for the Coming of Christ,
and may receive from thee abundant graces.
Through Christ Our Lord. Amen.
3. On the First Sunday of Advent, gather the family around the wreath, just before the evening meal. Light the first candle - a purple one. Traditionally, this candle can be lit by the youngest child in the family. The head of the household (or any designated person) can then say a prayer, such as this one:
Stir up thy power, O Lord, and come,
that by thy protection we may be rescued
from the dangers that beset us through our sins;
and be a Redeemer to deliver us;
Who livest and reignest with God the Father
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
ever one God, world without end. Amen.
Or, someone could read a passage from the Bible, such as Romans 15:12-13
4. After the candle is lit, add a decoration to the wreath. Meanwhile, remove a link from the chain and say a prayer together for the person or cause that is written on it.Leave the candle lit throughout the evening meal.
5. Every day, for the rest of the week, light the same candle(s) just before the evening meal. Take another loop from the paper chain and say a prayer for the person or cause written on it.
If desired, add another small decoration to the wreath.
6. The Second Sunday of Advent, a second purple candle is lit. This is often done by the oldest child of the household. First, light the candle from the previous week and repeat the prayer of that week. Then, light a second purple candle. The head of the household says a prayer such as this one.
Stir up our hearts, O Lord,
to prepare the paths of thine Only-begotten Son:
that we may worthily serve thee
with hearts purified by His coming:
Who livest and reignest with God the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
ever one God, world without end. Amen.
Or another verse, such as Luke 3:4-6 can be read.
Leave the candles lit throughout the entire meal.
Repeat step 4.
7. Repeat step 5.
8. On the Third Sunday of Advent, light the first two candles again, repeating the prayers with each one. Then the pink candle is lit, traditionally by the mother of the household. The head of the household can then say a prayer such as this one:
We beseech thee to listen to our prayers, O Lord,
and by the grace of thy coming enlighten our darkened minds:
Thou who livest and reignest with God the Father
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever. Amen.
Or read a passage such as John 1:19-34
Repeat step 4.
9. Repeat step 5.
10. The Fourth Sunday of Advent. The head of the household lights each of the previous candles, in order, repeating the prayers for each one. Then, the last purple candle is lit and a prayer such as this one is said:
Pour forth thy power, O Lord, and come:
Assist us by that mighty power,
so that by thy grace and merciful kindness
we may swiftly receive the salvation that our sins impede:
Who livest and reignest with thee in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
ever one God, world without end. Amen.
Or read a passage such as John 3:16-17
Repeat step 4
11. Repeat step 5 until Christmas Eve.
12. Some families traditionally start celebrating on Christmas Eve, such as my own family with our Wigilia tradition. Others begin their celebrations on Christmas Day. Whichever day you begin celebrating, gather the family around the wreath. The children of the family can light the 4 candles in order, plus the fifth one, if used. The head of the household repeats the prayers for each candle lit. Then a prayer such as this one can be said:
Let the just rejoice,
for their justifier is born.
Let the sick and infirm rejoice,
For their saviour is born.
Let the captives rejoice,
For their Redeemer is born.
Let slaves rejoice,
for their Master is born.
Let free men rejoice,
For their Liberator is born.
Let All Christians rejoice,
For Jesus Christ is born.
Then read the Christmas story in Luke 2:1-20
Leave the candles burning throughout the feast.
Other Advent Activities
Advent is a time of preparation, and there are a lot of things the whole family can do together. Here are a few family friendly activities to enjoy. I'm sure you can come up with more!
- Make a nativity creche; do a search online for print outs, or make your own.
- Hand craft decorations for the tree or home. They can be as simple or elaborate as desired.
- Practise some of your favourite Christmas carols, or learn a new one.
- Donate to, or volunteer at, your local food bank.
- Visit friends and relatives. Make extra effort to repair damaged relationships and forgive the past. If you can't visit, send cards or letters.
- Hand craft special gifts for the special people in your life.
- Write notes of appreciation to the people in your life you value, but tend to take for granted. Leave the notes for them to find as a special surprise.
- Go for a walk as a family, or take turns reading out loud to each other each evening from a special book saved for just these times.
- Visit someone who is homebound or find ways to help someone who is going through a tough time.
- Watch a movie together as a family.
What are some of your family traditions? Feel free to share them here.