The advent of something refers to its first appearing. In our culture, Christmas has turned into the Christmas season. This year it started about a week before Halloween, and will run until December 25th. The “Holiday Season” will actually extend until January 1st. All of this “Christmas creep” has a quite a negative effect on Christmas.
If we are celebrating the incarnation of Jesus Christ on Christmas Day, the two-month Christmas season detracts from the actual day itself. I respond to the notion that our society stole Christmas from Christians and turn it into a secular holiday here. What I would like to do in this post is comment on a purely Christian tradition of celebrating Advent.
The Advent season is the 4 weeks leading up to Christmas. During the Old Testament times of the Bible, the Hebrews were waiting for a promised Messiah. Messiah is Hebrew for “anointed one.” Christ is the Greek word for the same thing used in the New Testament. The prophets wrote of the promise; Abraham had been given the promise; you can find reference to the son of promise as far back as Genesis chapter 3. The wise men came from afar seeking to find the promise. Mary and Joseph waiting the same nine months expectant parents do today for the promise. During Advent, we wait for the promised Messiah. We plan and prepare to celebrate the joy that the arrival of the promise brings. So how does one celebrate Advent?
Pictured at the top of this page is an advent wreath. If your church lights the Advent candles, then you know this ritual well. Each Sunday one candle is lit (usually purple) with the last candle (often pink) being lit on the final Sunday of Advent. If your church has a Christmas Eve service (or a Midnight Mass) you would then light the candle in the center. If you do the candle service in your home, you could light the center tower either on Christmas Eve with your family, or Christmas Day. My wife has decided to keep the Advent candle service in our home this year. She bought a brass candle holder set with the four candles, and is decorating with our own fresh greenery. Of course you could also buy an artificial wreath and use it year after year. I am going to suggest that lighting the candles celebrates the Light coming into a world of darkness, but there are other traditions and interpretations.
Many Christian families celebrate Advent this way: light the candles of the Advent wreath, and use this time to teach your children the lessons of the Old Testament promises and how we now celebrate with a time of waiting. A good church hymnal still has hymns of Advent; not Christmas hymns or carols, but songs of the promise, of waiting and seeking the coming King. You can still put up the Christmas tree, sing the traditional Christmas songs, and hang the stockings by the fire (just don’t start in the middle of November). On December 25th, open the presents and celebrate the joy of Christmas Day. I recommend using Christmas Eve to read the Bible passages and teach the lesson, so that the next day can be spent opening packages and playing with the new stuff if your family has children. Don’t expect a 5-year-old to put away their new toys and listen patiently to a Sunday School lesson. The point is this: use the season of Advent to celebrate the waiting for the coming promises to be fulfilled, and then celebrate on Christmas day the arrival of the promise. Some Christians have given up on the traditions of our culture all together, and only celebrate Advent, but I see this as throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Add Advent to your families’ traditions, and redefine Christmas Day with new meaning.
Neither my family nor my church celebrated Advent while I was growing up. What I know about Advent I learned from Michael Spencer. I recommend reading the Internet Monk on Advent. He not only explains Advent in this post, but links to older posts about how his family celebrates Advent as well as other blogs, such as First Things by Joseph Bottum.