“Advent” is a rather odd word; you don’t often hear it in everyday conversation. Some may use it to mean “onset,” as in the advent of an illness. Others know it only as an adjective before the word “calendar” during the holiday season.
But for Christians, Advent means much more.
The English word “advent” comes from the Latin word adventus, which means “coming” or “visit.” The season of Advent is a time when Christians focus on the coming of Christ, whose birth we celebrate in December.1
So there’s more to Advent than a crafty calendar?
There is. Christians observe Advent as a season of the church or liturgical year. This “year” includes the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Pentecost, Ordinary Time, and other holy days.
The Bible doesn’t prescribe these liturgical seasons, but Christians have been observing them as part of church tradition for centuries, beginning in the sixth or seventh centuries AD. The church year is shaped by the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, especially his birth, death, and resurrection.
How does Advent work?
Rarely exactly four weeks long, Advent can in fact vary in length from year to year. The season always begins four Sundays before Christmas (December 25), but since Christmas falls on a different day of the week each year, Advent can begin anywhere from November 27 to December 3. Advent is followed by twelve days of Christmas, culminating with the day of Epiphany.2 (And yes, the song is based on the tradition—not the other way around!)
A generation ago, you might have been hard-pressed to find evidence of Advent traditions outside of highly liturgical denominations, such as Anglican, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic churches. Today, however, many non-liturgical churches incorporate Advent traditions and observances into their holiday services.
What are Advent traditions like?
There is no hard-and-fast prescription for how to observe the Advent season correctly, but some traditions do exist. One of these is the Advent wreath. Many churches begin the Advent season by displaying a wreath with five candles—often four of the same size and one larger candle.
Each of the four candles, typically placed around the circumference of the wreath, commemorates themes of Advent related to expectation, hope, love, or joy. The fifth candle represents Christ and is usually placed in the center of the wreath. Every Sunday of Advent, the church lights one of the smaller candles before lighting the final candle—the Christ candle—on Christmas Day.
What happened to the red and green?
The colors related to Advent are those more commonly associated with Easter. Rather than the familiar reds and greens of secular Christmas celebrations, the colors of Advent are royal-blue or purple, pink, and white.
Why? Purple is usually associated with penitence, solemnity, and royalty. Purple is also the standard color for Lent, a season that emphasizes repentance, self-denial, and suffering. Pink signifies joy and happiness, common themes for the third week of Lent.
Some Protestant churches do not use purple during Advent in order to distinguish the season from Lent. They might instead choose royal-blue to represent the birth of the King of Kings, or bright blue to emphasize the heavens from which the angels proclaimed the Savior’s birth. Advent wreaths usually contain three purple or blue candles and one pink candle, with a white Christ candle in the center. The colors aren’t mandatory—or magic. But they are imbued with meaning.
How can I celebrate Advent?
Taking a few weeks to focus on the hope of Christ’s coming can make Christmas a more meaningful and joyful celebration. Pastor and author Mark Roberts confesses he did not observe Advent until adulthood, but he has grown to treasure its meaning: “The more I felt my yearning for God’s presence during Advent, the more I was thrilled with his coming to dwell among us in Jesus. The more I got in touch with my own need for a Savior, the more I rejoiced at the Savior’s birth.”3
If the church you attend observes Advent, pay careful attention to its themes within your own worship tradition. Even if your church does not formally observe Advent, you may hear its themes echoed in the music of the season, perhaps through hymns like “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus,” or “Joy to the World.”
Additionally, you can celebrate the Advent season with your family or a group of friends. You don’t need an “official” church leader on hand to do so! You may decide to incorporate a wreath and candles into your celebration, along with readings from the Bible and prayers. Any community can gather together each week to look toward the day of Jesus’ birth.
If you enjoy music, you might explore works that point to the coming of Christ, such as Bach’s Advent Cantatas, the first portion of Handel’s Messiah, or even a modern work like Andrew Peterson’s Behold the Lamb of God.
Take advantage of some of the many wonderful devotional books available for the season. Some suggestions are Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas by various authors; God Is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas by Dietrich Bonhoeffer; Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room: Daily Family Devotions for Advent by Nancy Guthrie; and The Greatest Gift: Unwrapping the Full Love Story of Christmas by Ann Voskamp.
Finally, look for opportunities to share with others your personal need for the Lord Jesus Christ, the hope of men and nations. Consider the idea of waiting for a Savior in the many opportunities the holiday season affords for waiting—check-out lines, traffic jams, and children’s anticipation of vacation time and hoped-for gifts and parties.
Advent is meant to help us remember our need and longing for the Light of the World, the Savior who is Christ the Lord. For “the people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.”4
- Actually, Christians refer to two advents of Christ: his first coming, which commenced with his birth in Bethlehem, and his second coming, which his followers believe will occur sometime in the future.
- The Day of Epiphany celebrates the revelation of Jesus Christ as God in the flesh. In Western Christianity, this generally focuses on the visit of the Magi to the newborn Jesus. Within Eastern Christianity, the celebration emphasizes Jesus’ baptism by John.
- Mark Roberts, Discovering Advent: How to Experience the Power of Waiting on God at Christmastime (Englewood, CO, Patheos Press, 2011), Kindle edition.
- The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, Isaiah 9:2.
- Photo Credit: Greg Schmigel / Stocksy.com.