A few days ago, I climbed up to the attic to embark on the annual “hunt for the box containing the Advent wreath.” We have a pretty big attic, but all the Christmas boxes are stored at one end, so the hunting ground is focused. My problem is labeling.
It’s not that I haven’t labeled the boxes — I label them every year. But I reuse the boxes, and as decorations have multiplied and migrated to bigger quarters over the years, it becomes difficult to decipher the notes. I have the box that says “Advent wreath.” And one that says “Advent wreath– really.” The Advent wreath was not stored in either of those, naturally. It was in a bigger box, placed right in front so that I could take it out first, labeled “Advent wreath, and I mean it this time.”That was probably about the tenth box I hauled down.
So anyway, the Advent wreath is now on the table — three purple candles and one pink candle surrounded by a collection of fake greens that get less realistic-looking each year. The kids fight over the right to light the candles each night during dinner. We light one during the first week, two during the second, etc. through the four weeks of Advent, just as I did with my family when I was a kid.
But all at once, I started to wonder why. I don’t think it was a tradition practiced by either of my parents growing up. I began to suspect it was rather new.
In fact, it turns out that even Christmas is newer than I had thought. The first references to celebrations of the birth of Jesus don’t appear in records until the 4th century — more than three hundred years after the fact. There are several theories about why the nativity came to be celebrated on December 25. One of the most prevalent is the idea that Christians selected the dates of Roman pagan feasts, the Feast of the Unconquered Sun on December 25 and the feast of Dionysus on January 5-6, for the Christian celebrations of Christmas and Twelfth Night/Epiphany. That way, early converts wouldn’t feel like they were missing out on any parties.
Christmas stretched for twelve days, with feasting and revelry and gifts to the poor. The custom of giving lavish gifts to ourselves is a relatively recent one.
Ahem. Back to the subject of Advent wreaths. Though the practice of having one on the dinner table may be recent, the wreath itself has ancient roots. Catholics and Lutherans used Advent wreaths in services during the seventeenth century, if not earlier. And long before that, pagan families in Scandinavia lit candles on wreaths to ask the god of light to turn the wheel of the earth back toward the sun. Since Christians see Jesus as the light of the world, it is easy to understand why they would appropriate this custom. Similarly, the pagan use of evergreens as decorations to symbolize the return of the new life of spring was taken up by Christians to celebrate the eternal life offered through Jesus. So the pagan wreath of evergreens and candles had new meanings for Christians.
In the Advent wreath, the pink candle is lit starting in the third week of the season to rejoice in the fact that the period of waiting is half over. This to me indicates that Advent used to be a period characterized by a little more austerity than we’re accustomed to these days. Advent was once a time of preparation and waiting. New converts to the faith prepared themselves for baptism, and people prayed and fasted to spiritually prepare for the second coming of the Lord. Now, although we still have all that preparation to do, we don’t wait. The celebrations start as soon as the Thanksgiving turkey is off the table. By the time Christmas actually arrives, many people are already tired of it. Last year, I saw Valentine’s decorations going up on Christmas Eve.
So that’s why I like my battered old Advent wreath. It reminds me to slow down during the month of December, to enjoy the time of anticipation and preparation. This morning, the kids were fighting over whose turn it is to move a figure onto the Advent calendar. Okay, sure they’re fighting. But at least they’re fighting over the important stuff.
Until next time…
(Note: this article is a revised version of an article first published on my website in December of 2005)