The word 'Advent' is from the Latin 'Adventus,' which means 'coming.' Advent is the beginning of a new liturgical year (in the Western churches), and encompasses the span of time from the fourth Sunday before Christmas, until the Nativity of Our Lord is celebrated. The first Sunday of Advent is the Sunday nearest the feast of St. Andrew the Apostle (which is November 30th), and so it will always fall somewhere between November 27th at the earliest and December 3rd at the latest. The liturgical color for this season is purple (Usually a deep purple as opposed to the lighter, red-violet shade of purple associated with Lent).
Like Lent, Advent is a preparatory season. It has significance because it is a season of looking forward and waiting for something greater; both for the annual celebration of the event of Christ's birth, and for the time when Christ will come again.
As noted in the New Catholic Encyclopedia, during Advent, the faithful are asked:
to prepare themselves worthily to celebrate the anniversary of the Lord's coming into the world as the incarnate God of love,
thus to make their souls fitting abodes for the Redeemer coming in Holy Communion and through grace, and
thereby to make themselves ready for His final coming as judge, at death and at the end of the world.
Origin and History of Advent
The exact time when the season of Advent came to be celebrated is not precisely known. Of course, it was not in practice before the celebration of the Nativity and Christmastide began; the earliest evidence shows that the feast of the Nativity of Our Lord was established within the later part of the 4th century. There are homilies from the 5th century that discuss preparation in a general sense, but do not indicate an official liturgical season. A Synod held in 590 established that Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from November 11th until the Nativity would be offered according to the Lenten rite. This and other traditions, such as fasting, show that the period of time now established as the Advent season was more penitential (similar to Lent) than the liturgical season as we know it today.
A collection of homilies from Pope St. Gregory the Great (whose papacy was from 590-604) included a sermon for the second Sunday of Advent, and by 650 Spain was celebrating the Sundays (five at the time) of Advent. So it seems the liturgical season was established around the latter part of the 6th century and first half of the 7th century. For the next couple of centuries, Advent was celebrated for five Sundays; Pope Gregory VII, who was pope from 1073-85, reduced the number to four Sundays.
Christmas Cards, official items printed with a Christmas message and sent to wish others a "A Very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.", were first printed in England in 1843 making them as old as the opera Don Pasquale, the United Free Church of Scotland, the British colony of Natal, a Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens and your grandmother's fruit cake.
Sir Henry Cole commissioned John Callcott Horsley to create the first Christmas card. Sir Cole must have had a lot of friends and a lot of free time since he had 1000 printed. Unfortunately, he didn't give thought to the sensibilities of the times setting off what could be one of the earliest politically correct protests when temperance groups objected to the image on the card depicting a child drinking wine with his family. In our family we believe that children shouldn't have liquor until they are at least three so the temperance protest is understandable.
It should also be noted that the first card didn't actually include an image of anything religious proving that the English are a bunch godless heathens only interested in selling tea and the worst food on the planet.
We do, and after listening to our customers have created our own story sheet and envelopes that will fit in a standard card envelope so you can mail them to your family and friends!
Here's a brief history if you aren't familiar with this Eastern European tradition:
The Oplatki tradition developed from earlier Christian traditions, such as the antidoron, in the Kingdom of Poland not long after Christianity came to the country in 966. The custom was adopted later by the Lithuanian, Czech and Slovak peoples and has made its way into countless other households who find that its rich symbolism is an easily adoptable Christmas custom which also carries profound meaning for Christians.
Poles, Slovaks, Czechs and Lithuanians are fortunate in preserving such a meaningful custom at Christmas, as an aid to a worthy reception of Holy Communion and as a family spiritual communion on this most joyous of Christian feasts. It is customary to have the Oplatki wafers blessed by the parish priest prior to Christmas Eve and many parishes provide the Oplatki for their parishioners.
Today, people use Jesse tree kits to help celebrate Advent, sometimes as a replacement for Advent calendars. It is a fun project for those with smaller children, and involves making ornaments to put onto the tree – one for each day leading up to Christmas. There are 24 scripture passages to use, and with each passage there are different symbols that can be used to create the ornaments. These include symbols such as the sun or stars (creation in Genesis), man or woman (Adam and Eve), ladder (Joseph), ark or animals (Noah), burning bush (Moses), pierced heart (Mary), and many more – each going with the related scripture passage.
As with many of our beloved Advent and Christmas traditions, we trace the origins of the Advent calendar to Germany. Advent calendars first appeared there in the mid 19th century.
Different methods of counting down the days to Christmas were common. Children in Germany often drew chalk lines or hung pictures to mark the days in anticipation of Christmas. Others lit candles each night during Advent. 1851 marks the appearance of the first printed Advent calendar - produced by Gerhard Lang. Lang developed the Advent calendar from tradition handed down from his mother - she would mark each day of Advent by attaching little candles to pieces of cardboard and, as a child, each day Gerhard would take one off. Lang's first printed calendar consisted of miniature colored pictures that would be attached to a piece of cardboard each day in December. Later versions of the Advent calendars were made with little doors to open up each day - the type of calendar we are most familiar with today.
The first Advent wreath was conceived by Johann Hinrich Wichern in 1839. He was the founder of a home for poor children in Hamburg, Germany and during the weeks leading up to Christmas was constantly being asked by the children if it was Christmas yet.
He constructed a wooden circle out of a cart wheel and topped it with nineteen small red candles and four tall white candles. Each day he would light an additional candle, saving the white candles for Sundays.
This original wreath eventually evolved into the four violet and pink candle wreath normally seen today. Some people add a fifth white candle to the center to be lit on Christmas day.
The Advent wreath tradition didn't spread beyond Germany until the 1930s but today can be found around the world. The use of three violet and one pink candle comes from the Catholic liturgical calendar where the vestment color for the third Sunday of Advent, Guadete Sunday, are rose colored. In Protestant churches four violet or sometimes blue candles are used instead.