This is the first Sunday in Advent – the days of the Christian church calendar leading up to the Feast of the Nativity.
When I was a child only Lutheran churches, and perhaps a handful of Anglican churches, followed the custom of Advent Wreaths. It has now become a widespread tradition in many Christian faiths – Roman, Orthodox and Protestant. I remember my surprise a few years ago when I saw a Presbyterian church – a faith I grew up in – advertising their service to light the first candle of their Advent Wreath. Advent Wreath? Presbyterians? Dear god what next dancing?
There are many theories as to where the custom began. Is it a Christian carry-over from a Northern pagan rite? A good possibility as the use of the circle, greenery and fire as symbols of regeneration in the face of winter is not uncommon in folk traditions of Northern peoples. Or as has been suggested was it a 19th century creation by a Lutheran pastor who used it as a way to mark the time until Christmas for the urban poor he was ministering to? As with many traditions the truth of its birth probably lies somewhere between the two with many regional and parochial variations.
Within the Christian faith there are differences in the form and ritual surrounding the Advent Wreath. In some churches the candles reflect the colour of the vestments traditional worn by the priest on the four Sundays of Advent: violet for the penitential days and rose for Gaudete Sunday in the Roman church, Sarum blue and rose for those respective days in the Anglican church. In Protestant churches the candles are normally red – a traditional colour of the season. In some churches a fifth white candle is placed in the centre of the wreath to be lit on Christmas Eve – the Christ candle. In keeping with the longer Advent period in the Orthodox church there are seven candles and I found a very fine explaination of the colours and their meaning on the site of St John the Evangelist Orthodox church.
In some churches the candle is simply lit with the singing of a hymn, in others there is a prayer and a hymn or Advent carol (yes there are Advent carols). Still other churches include it as a more meditative element with a traditional service. Several years ago when we were in Munich we attended a simple but lovely Advent Vespers at the Michaelskirche which I wrote about at the time.
A more secular tradition is the Advent Calendar – again a Lutheran creation, perhaps created by that same pastor. At first they would have been homemade but by the late 1800s had become a stationery item in many countries. Most were made in Germany or by German immigrants and consisted of a single sheet of cardboard with doors cut into it; it was then backed by a thinner sheet of paper with the verse or picture for the day printed on it which would be revealed as doors were opened.
|The first Advent Calendar designed and printed by Richard Seller in 1946. It became a very
popular import in North America when the Eisenhower family received one. It is still available today.
With the rationing of paper and printing restrictions in the Second World War the custom disappeared however was revived in the late 1940s by Richard Sellmer. He created the first calendar by hand in his Stuttgart living room and was given permission by the American command responsible for the sector to print them in December of 1946. The company Richard Sellmer Verlag – still owned by his family – produces some 120 designs a year (a click will take you to some of this year’s designs). Many of the designs are traditional and some are reproductions from earlier years.
|The Rathaus in Hündfeld, Germany becomes a gigantic Advent Calendar for the Christmas Season.|
Most Advent Calendars begin on December 1st though the actual season can begin anytime in late November-early December. And they can take many forms – elaborate creations with gifts behind each door, simple cards with a Christmas picture or text behind each door; the subjects can be secular or sacred; they can be store bought or homemade. They can be the size of a city block or they can be virtual and fit on an iPhone.
|A handcraft Advent Calendar made from painted, recycled tin cans and a branch –
an ingenuous example of a homemade countdown to Christmas.
My friend Larry has been creating a virtual Advent Calendar on his blog since he arrived in Rome. In 2007 we opened “windows” of Rome; in subsequent years “doors”, “gates”, “angels”, “fountains” and “modern churches” of the Eternal City have revealed a thought, verse, text or music for the Advent season. Though he doesn’t blog much anymore Larry is once again posting his virtual Advent Calendar and this year we are climbing the “stairs” – and there are so many – of Rome to count down to Christmas. As in year’s past I will be posting a sidebar to Larry’s Calendar which I will update daily to lead you to his post of the day.
Let’s begin by mounting the stairs at Larry and Vin’s apartment building in Garbatella which will take us up our first Roman staircase towards the Feast of the Nativity. We took that staircase a good many times to celebrate Christmas, birthdays and good times with two of our dear friends.