Skip to main content

The History of Christmas Traditions: The Advent

Kristine has a B.A. in Journalism from Penn State University and an M.A. in Liberal Studies from the University of Michigan.

Read on to learn about the history and origins of Advent, its symbolic meaning, as well as the origins and meaning of the Advent wreath

Read on to learn about the history and origins of Advent, its symbolic meaning, as well as the origins and meaning of the Advent wreath

The Origins of Advent

Does your church do Advent? For some Christians, the Christmas season is marked by the four weeks leading up to the birth of the Christ Child by the observation of Advent. From the Latin word adventus, which means “coming,” the period of Advent not only readies Christians for the celebration of the birth of Jesus but also is a preparation for the second coming of Jesus Christ.

A Time of Preparation

According to Brittanica, the observance begins in Western churches on the Sunday closest to November 30. It also marks the beginning of the liturgical year in the church. Some Eastern churches also observe a similar period of penance and preparation during the 40 days before Christmas known as the Nativity Fast.

The date when the Advent season was first observed is unknown, according to Brittanica. The first recorded observance is by Bishop Perpetuus of Tours (461–490), who established a fast before Christmas that began on November 11 (St. Martin’s Day). Documents dating back to the Council of Tours in 567 first mention the observance of an Advent season.

Early Observances

According to The Gospel Coalition, the first written evidence of an Advent season was recorded in Hispania and Gaul, now modern-day regions of Spain and France. The earliest official mention of Advent practices comes when the Council of Sargossa (AD 380) met to contradict a rising heresy and suggested that people attend daily mass between December 17 and 29.

Starting around the fourth century, Advent was a time when converts to Christianity prepared themselves for baptism, according to Infoplease.

Early Advent celebrations lasted from November 11, the feast of St. Martin, until Christmas Day. Advent during this time was at first considered a pre-Christmas season in the same order as Lent, a time when Christians observe prayer and fasting, according to Infoplease.

During the Middle Ages, Advent became associated with preparation for the Second Coming of Jesus. In the early days, Advent lasted from November 11, the feast of St. Martin, until Christmas Day. It was considered a pre-Christmas season similar to Lent when Christians devoted themselves to prayer and fasting.

During the last century, however, the focus of Advent shifted slightly, according to Infoplease. It is also observed as a time to prepare for the celebration of the Nativity on Christmas Day.

The traditional Advent wreath features purple and rose candles

The traditional Advent wreath features purple and rose candles

The Advent Wreath

The origins of the Advent wreath are based on folk traditions of northern Europe. During the dark winters, candles were lit on wheel-shaped bundles of evergreens, with the circular shape symbolizing ongoing life, according to Infoplease.

The candlelight symbolized light during a dark time of year when people looked forward to longer and warmer spring days. Eastern European Christians eventually adopted this practice, and by the 16th century, the wreaths were a part of pre-Christmas traditions.

Traditional Advent wreaths contain four candles—three purple (or violet) and one rose. According to Infoplease, the color purple—which was expensive due to the process needed to obtain the dye and was generally associated with royalty—was adopted by the Roman Catholic Church around Christmas and Easter to honor Jesus.

The purple candles in the Advent wreath traditionally symbolize hope, peace, and love and are lit on the first, second, and fourth Sundays of Advent. The rose candle is lit on the third Sunday and symbolizes joy, according to Infoplease. Sometimes a fifth candle—often white—is placed inside the Advent wreath and lit on Christmas Day. The white candle is associated with angels and honors the birth of the Christ child.

Not all Advent wreaths are the same, however. According to Brittanica, some Protestant denominations traditionally use blue candles rather than purple and rose.

Whether looking forward to the Second Coming or readying for the birth of the Christ Child, Advent is a time of reflection and preparation for Christians all over the world.

How to Make an Advent Wreath

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.