The period of Advent, which means “to come,” is a period of anticipation, of looking forward, of waiting. What are we waiting for? In the Christian tradition: the birth of the Christ Child, who will be recognized as the Son of Light at Candlemas (February 2, when Mary presents him at the temple). In the pagan tradition, the rebirth of the Sun, for the Winter Solstice is the moment when the sun is at its nadir (for those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere). For a few days, the sun appears to stand still, and then begins its northward journey again, bringing more light into the world with each passing day.
In the Church calendar, the first Sunday in Advent is the beginning of the Liturgical year. Advent is celebrated on the four Sundays before December 25, Christmas, beginning with the Sunday closest to November 30, St. Andrew’s Day. This period was first observed, as a time of solemnity and fasting, in medieval times. At the time of the Reformation, it became part of the liturgical calendar of Anglicans and Lutherans, and was subsequently adopted by other Protestant groups. According to Father Reardon, in Orthodox churches, Advent begins on the feast day of St. Phillip, November 15, and last for 40 days, echoing the 40 days of Lent in Spring. In fact, it is often called the Winter Lent or St Phillip’s Fast.
If you prefer to celebrate the rebirth of the Sun instead of Christmas as the turning point in the year, you could mark the beginning of Advent four Sundays before Winter Solstice (which is calculated astronomically and can fall on December 20, 21 or 22). This year, both Christian Advent and Pagan Advent begin on Sunday, November 28.
Most Advent customs have to do with marking time: opening doors in an Advent calendar, lighting candles in an Advent wreath, putting symbols on a Jesse tree. All of these customs are fairly modern. Though both evergreen wreaths and candles were important symbols during the winter holidays, the Advent wreath is first mentioned in the 19th century in Germany and spread to the United States in the 1930s. The first Advent calendar was also created in Germany in 1851 and the first printed versions were made in Munich in 1908. (We also have Germany to thank for the concept of the Christmas tree.) The idea of marking time with a Jesse tree (a symbol of the tree outlining Christ’s lineage on which symbols are placed that correspond with Bible stories) is even more modern, developed in American Protestant churches in the twentieth century. Before we used these devices for marking time, there were simpler customs, for instance, marking the passing days with chalk on a doorway, lighting a candle every day, or marking lines on a tall candle (like the one on the right which I found at the Wikipedia article on the Advent wreath) and burning it for a short period each day.
Although I remember Advent from my Catholic childhood, it was a minor celebration, easily overwhelmed by all the emphasis on Christmas (presents, decorations, etc.). But I have been a big fan of celebrating Advent ever since I read The Advent Sunwheel by Helen Farias (available at my store). She outlines a weekly ceremony to be performed every Sunday (Sunday being the Sun’s day) in which you light one candle on the Advent wreath, read a story (I love the stories Helen wrote but you could use any holiday or light-in-the-darkness tale), spend a few minutes enjoying the candlelight, then indulge in seasonal food and drink. This is a lovely tradition to share with family or friends. At our house, the grand finale comes on the Sunday before Solstice, when we host our annual Winter Solstice party and St. Lucy arrives to light the Sun candle in the center of the Advent wreath.
My particular spin on the tradition is to make my own Advent wreath from evergreens I collect in my neighborhood. It is part of my goal of living seasonally and knowing what is available at this time of the year. I go on a long walk on Wreath-Making Day, the Saturday before Advent begins, to gather the greens, returning every year to the same trees and bushes. In my neighborhood, I can find cedar, holly, pine, fir, spruce, and, I hope this year, my new best friend, cryptomeria japonica.
Another Advent-related holiday (which I have not celebrated) is Stir-Up Sunday, the Sunday before Advent begins, celebrated this year on the full moon of November 21 in 2010. The name comes from the Church of England collect for that day which begins “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people.” That became a reminder that it was time to start stirring up the Christmas puddings and was parodied with this verse.Stir up, we beseech thee The pudding in the pot And when we do get home We’ll eat it piping hot.
Charles Kightly in The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore mentions the belief that Christmas puddings should always be stirred with a wooden spoon and all present should take a turn in order, mother, father, children and babies, by seniority, then visitors. I like it that the mother comes first in this list! Not so in Roman customs where the paterfamilias usually takes the lead.
I do observe another cooking-related Advent custom recommended by Helen Farias, and that is the baking of 13 different kinds of winter holiday cookies, including Lucy cats, Advent pretzels, gingerbread men, cinnamon stars (Zimsterne), and shortbread. Because that’s a lot of cookies, I begin baking them at the start of Advent, making three or four different kinds a week so that they will all be done in time for the Solstice Party. You can get my cookie recipes and a schedule for baking that will allow you to serve the appropriate cookie each Advent Sunday if you buy my Thirteen Cookies for Christmas book.)
Waverly Fitzgerald is a writer, teacher and dancer. She founded School of the Seasons, edits Living in Season and is the author of Slow Time: Recovering the Natural Rhythm of Life. First published November 07, 2010.