Advent And Rethinking Christmas
Christmas often feels like the busiest and most stressful time of the year. What if there was another way to enjoy the season? Could the less well-known season of Advent be the answer?
When do we put up the Christmas decorations?
This question comes up every year. The Christmas decorations seem to go on sale earlier and earlier. Stores try harder and harder to commercialize every aspect of the season. And in more and more aspects of life, we find ourselves perplexed by what doing the “right thing” might be and what the “correct answer” is to the question.
For years, my suggestion has been the same. The decorations go up on Advent Sunday – four Sundays before Christmas.
This year Advent Sunday is 3 December. Last year it was 27 November.
But wait, I can hear you saying, don’t Advent calendars have 25 slots? Surely Advent starts on December 1st? Well, yes, it will be like that in 2024. But generally, no, Advent doesn’t start on the beginning of December.
The Season of Advent
Advent is one of the main seasons of the Christian liturgical calendar, alongside Easter and Lent. Advent is about preparing for Christmas. It is a season to be quiet, to reflect, to not be weighed down by the concerns of the world and instead focus on hope and the promise of good things the future might hold.
Ever heard of giving up something for Lent? Well, Lent is a season of preparation, of self-sacrifice, before the festival of Easter. Advent began the same way. It’s unclear when the season began, but its origins date back to at least the fifth century.
Advent is four Sundays of anticipation before Christmas. The season is about light breaking into darkness. A lot of things we associate with Christmas – candles, carols – were actually part of Advent. The last days of Advent involve singing the great “O Antiphons”, the most famous of them being “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”. The modern version of this song comes from the eighteenth century, but its origins trace back to ninth-century monasteries.
As for our Advent Calendars, they originated in Germany. There was a practice of counting down the days to Christmas by lighting candles or marking walls or doorways with chalk. Then in the nineteenth century, the first Advent calendars appeared. They were wooden hanging boxes, where the faithful could place a little devotional image or object every day.
In the early twentieth century, the first printed advent calendars appeared. Gerhard Lang added small moving doors to them and created the kind of Advent calendars we know today. Lang’s business closed in the lead up to World War II. After the war, the Sellmar-Verlag company revived the business, and the popularity of Advent calendars spread throughout the US and across the world. The same company still makes them today.
Since the start date and duration of Advent change every year, it wasn’t practical to make a calendar that changes all the time. A calendar that starts on the same day, 1 December, is easier to design, make, and market.
By the 1950s, Advent calendars had become hugely popular. President Eisenhower was photographed opening one. In the early 1970s, Cadbury introduced the first Advent calendars with chocolates. Nowadays, every company, from Lego to Tiffany, seems to sell an Advent calendar.
The Season of Christmas
Christmas isn’t just a day but also a season. Heard of the 12 days of Christmas? Well, they aren’t a countdown to Christmas, but a season that starts with Christmas and runs through to 6 January, otherwise known as Epiphany, which is the day that commemorates the arrival of the Three Wise Men to visit the holy baby. In some countries, Epiphany is actually when gifts are given.
So to expand our answer, the decorations go up on Advent Sunday, stay in place for about six weeks, and come down on 6 January.
I didn’t grow up with any of this. My family was notionally Catholic, like most Latin Americans. We had a short Christmas season, focused entirely on a big celebration on Christmas Eve. It was fun – but also rushed and stressful, and frequently the cause of many conflicts.
It was when I moved to London, and particularly when I was at King’s College London, that I came to appreciate and love Advent and see Christmas in a different light.
Every year, King’s had a special Advent service in their historic and ornate chapel. Tickets were hard to come by. The space was warmed by hundreds of candles and resonated with the sound of modern chorale music and poetry. The atmosphere was an intoxicating mix of high culture and spiritual devotion.
Almost as impressive was the service to mark Epiphany, which tended to coincide with the end of the Christmas break and the return to classes.
Ending Your Year Well
Spacing the start of the season weeks away from the peak of the season permitted a different tone. Christmas didn’t feel rushed. It stopped being a stressful thing that grew ominous. Instead, it was something to be anticipated and enjoyed with delight when it finally arrived.
And having the actual 12 days of Christmas took the pressure off one day and one meal fulfilling all the expectations of the season. It also felt easier to include other people, especially friends, in the season.
There was time to enjoy everything.
The start of Advent also became a great buffer for ending the year with grace. I would use that date as a cut-off point for accepting new commitments. Anything that wasn’t an emergency would be deferred until after Epiphany (6 January).
Advent became the season for ending the year’s commitments and making sure nothing no longer relevant or important got carried into the coming year. The season’s contemplative nature and focus on looking forward with hope was a natural companion to end-of-year reflecting and expectation setting for the coming year.
Living With Advent
To be honest, I care less and less every year how people choose to celebrate Christmas or don’t. When people put up their Christmas decorations doesn’t really matter. Put them up the night before Christmas. Leave them up all year round. That’s your choice.
Also, it doesn’t really matter if you choose to start Advent on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, or on the first day of December.
What matters is avoiding the stress we might feel and the pressure we put ourselves and others under, trying to craft one perfect day. It’s easier to get a season right than a single event.