The term ‘Advent’ derives from the Latin word adventus, meaning ‘coming’ or ‘arrival’, and holds deep significance in Christian traditions. The period of Advent spans the four Sunday’s leading up to Christmas, commencing on the Sunday closest to 30 November (St Andrew’s Day), and culminating on 24 December (Christmas Eve).
For Christians, Advent symbolises the anticipation and preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, and the hope and anticipation of his Second Coming. This significant time also marks the start of the liturgical year in Western Christianity – the church’s annual cycle of feast days and Scripture readings.
The practice of Advent dates back centuries and has evolved over time. Beyond religious contexts, it has gained cultural prominence, featuring in secular festive celebrations as a fun and exciting countdown to Christmas. Here we explore the various customs, rituals, and symbols Advent encompasses.
Advent has various origins but its roots can largely be traced back to the 4th and 5th centuries, notably in Gaul (modern-day France), Spain and northern Italy, where churchgoers observed a preparatory period preceding Christmas, involving fasting, prayer and reflection.
In Tours, France, Bishop Perpetuus (461-490) established a 3 day fast each week leading to Christmas, starting from 11 November (St Martin’s Day). This preparation became known as Advent, evolving into a 5 week ‘St Martin’s Lent’ that included fasts and abstinence. Indeed in 567, the Council of Mâcon in Tours mentioned an Advent season, ordering monks to fast throughout December until Christmas.
Advent thus first emerged as a season where Christians observed 40 days of fasting (much like with Lent), penance, and prayer in readiness for celebrating Christ’s birth and the baptism of new Christians at Epiphany in January. In the 6th century, Roman Christians had tied Advent to the Second Coming of Christ.
Originally, there was little connection between Advent and Christmas, but over time, Advent’s duration and focus began to shift. The first clear references in the Western Church to Advent are found in the Gelasian Sacramentary (the second oldest-surviving western liturgical book), with writings under Charlemagne confirming the fast was still widely observed in the 9th century.
It was only by the Middle Ages that Advent became linked to Jesus’ birth (his First Coming) at Christmas. This marked a shift in emphasis from penitence to preparing for the Nativity, solidifying Advent’s position as a distinct liturgical season. The practices associated with Advent continued to evolve through the Middle Ages, varying across regions and religious orders, focusing on penitential aspects or joyful anticipation.
In the 6th century, St Gregory I (also known as Gregory the Great), played a role in shaping some common Advent practices, including the use of the Advent wreath. This wreath, usually crafted from evergreen foliage in a circular shape, symbolises God’s eternal nature, the cyclical liturgical year, and the hope of eternal life.
An Advent wreath has 4 candles around its perimeter, and traditionally uses colours like purple and blue, symbolising repentance, penance, and royalty. Each represent aspects of the Advent themes: hope, peace, joy (represented by a pink candle), and love. Each candle corresponds to these themes, guiding devotions, prayers, and reflections during each week of Advent.
The candles are lit progressively each week, so by the fourth week, they burn down to different extents. Additionally, a fifth central ‘Christ candle’, often white, is sometimes positioned in the wreath’s centre, and only lit on Christmas Eve or Day, symbolising Christ as the Light of the World, and heralding his arrival at the darkest time of the year.
Advent wreaths gained wider recognition after Lutheran minister Johann Wichern created a wreath with candles representing the Sundays of Advent in 1839, using a wooden ring with candles to help the impatient children he was teaching mark the Sundays leading to Christmas. Though modern Advent wreaths retain only the larger candles, initially, Wichern’s design included 19 small red tapers and 4 large white candles, each with a specific daily or weekly lighting tradition.
Various traditions and practices have emerged around Advent, reflecting cultural and regional influences, most notably Advent calendars, marking the daily countdown to Christmas with small treats, chocolates, or religious verses behind numbered doors.
The first Advent calendars are thought to date back to German Lutherans in the mid-19th century, and were simply chalk marks on a cupboard door or window. However it was in 1908 that German publisher Gerhard Lang invented the first printed and commercial Advent calendar (in partnership with illustrator Ernst Kepler and printer Reichhold), inspired by his childhood memory of his mother putting 24 biscuits onto a square of cardboard and allowing him to eat one each day of Advent.
Lang’s initial calendar consisted of 24 little pictures which could be stuck onto a piece of cardboard, but he later created the first Advent calendars with doors in the 1920s. Other publishers such as the Sankt Johannis Printing Company soon followed suit (this time with biblical verse instead of concealed pictures), and by the 1930s, commercially produced Advent calendars were in high demand in Germany.
During World War Two, paper shortages and the Nazis‘ secular rebranding of Christmas stopped the printing of illustrated calendars. (The Nazis later created their own Advent calendar incorporating swastikas and exploding tanks.)
After the war, German companies returned to printing traditional Advent calendars, and many returning soldiers brought them back to their families, popularising them in Europe and America. German printer Richard Sellmer helped introduce Advent calendars with snowy scenes in America, and their popularity soared after President Eisenhower was pictured opening one with his grandchildren in 1953.
Whilst Cadbury’s produced the first chocolate Advent calendar in 1958 and began commercially producing them in 1971, take-up was slow for a further two decades before they were put into continuous production.
Today, Advent calendars have expanded into digital formats, activities, and interactive experiences, and at varying price points – appealing to modern audiences while maintaining the essence of anticipation and reflection.
While Christmas can fall on any day of the week, Advent always holds 4 Sundays, meaning technically the first day of the Advent season changes every year. Nevertheless, modern Advent calendars start the Christmas countdown on 1 December, and end on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, making them easily reproducible or refillable each season.
Other Advent traditions and customs
During Advent, Nativity scenes also play a central role in many households and churches, gradually unfolding the story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem through the placement of figurines.
Many churches incorporate Advent-related services, scripture readings, hymns, and prayers to honour the season, along with Christingle services, symbolised by a candle in an orange (representing the light and the world), adorned with a red ribbon and sweets or dried fruit.
There are also many Advent hymns and carols, with carol concerts and musical performances in anticipation of Christmas common at this time and enjoyed by religious and secular people alike. The season fosters a spirit of charity and aid, inspiring donations or volunteer work to help others. Advent is a time not only for religious observance but also for fostering community, giving, and celebrating shared values.
Modern observance and significance
Advent, initially a Christian season emphasising reflection and nurturing hope, peace, joy, and love amid the busyness of the Christmas season, has evolved into a multifaceted observance.
Although rooted in Christian traditions, Advent derives from the Latin for ‘arrival’ (adventus), and has expanded into secular celebrations, intertwining with religious practices like carol concerts, and often celebrated purely as a fun and exciting way of counting down to Christmas.
Consequently, Advent has a large commercial side, with retailers capitalising on Advent’s popularity through secularised Advent calendars, sales, and a plethora of Christmas-themed films, making it a significant marketing opportunity.
Advent now represents a blend of religious reverence and cultural festivities, embracing both traditional observances and modern consumer-driven elements.