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Advent symbols and traditions

In Catholicism, The great Os, sometimes called “Major Antiphons”, or “O before the Christmas”, are antiphonies sung of Vespers of Advent in the week preceding the Feast of the Nativity. Tradition had been respected since about the eighth century in Europe, first in the kingdom of Charlemagne. One also speaks of feasts or week (octave) of “Holy Mary of the O”, due to old oficial traditions of this holy week. Indeed, in the theological context, these antiphons express the deepest gratitude of the faithful for the immense project of God for so long for all mankind, passing through the long history of Israel culminating with the Nativity. That is, the birth of Jesus Christ. The “O Antiphons,” says Prosper Gueranger, contain all the marrow of the Advent liturgy, reproducing the humorous title of an ancient work.

The feast of the Annunciation, originally that of December 18, was replaced in Spain by that of the Expectation of Childbirth or Hope (Expectatio) and the antiphons were framing this festival. Its Christian origin is evident. In Chaldean, for example, Esperance (one of the three cardinal virtues) comes from the root “sbar“, gives “subara“, Avent, but has a related meaning “Annunciation”, which recalls that in the early days December 18 was the feast of the Annunciation before being that of the Expectation of the Childhood or feast of the Hope.

Symbols and traditions

Advent Wreath

Advent Wreath (Traditional Wreath in Canada, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Adventkranz_andrea.JPG)

Inspired by a sixteenth-century German tradition, the Advent Wreath was invented in 1839 by Pastor Johann Heinrich Wichern due to the impatience of the children he educates; He then makes a crown of wood, with nineteen small red tapers and four large white candles. Every morning a small candle is lit and every Sunday a large candle; Custom has retained only the greats.

The crown is traditionally made of fir tree branches knotted with a red ribbon and decorated with pine cones, holly, laurel and sometimes mistletoe. It is also an ancient symbol signifying several things; first of all, the crown symbolizes victory, in addition to its round form evoking the sun and its return each year, the number of four represents, in addition to the four weeks of Advent, the four seasons and the four cardinal points, and the green color is a sign of life and hope. The fir tree is a symbol of strength and laurel, a symbol of victory over sin and suffering. The latter two, with the holly, do not lose their leaves, and thus represent the eternity of God. The flames of candles are the representation of the Christmas light approaching and bringing hope and peace, as well as the symbol of the struggle against darkness. For Christians, this crown is also the symbol of Christ the King, the holly recalling the thorns of the Holy Crown resting on the head of Christ. The Advent wreath is traditionally placed on a table with four candles or on the front door of the house as a welcome sign.

Advent Wreath (Traditional Advent Wreath)

The candles also symbolize the great stages of salvation before the coming of the Messiah; the first is the symbol of the forgiveness granted to Adam and Eve, the second is the symbol of the faith of Abraham and of the patriarchs who believe in the gift of the Promised Land, the third is the symbol of the joy of David whose lineage does not not stop and also testify of his covenant with God, and the fourth and last candle is the symbol of the teaching of the prophets who announce a reign of justice and peace. Or they symbolize the four stages of human history; the Creation, the Incarnation, the redemption of sins and the Last Judgment. Currently at the Mass of the Catholic Church, the four candles are gradually lit, but the symbolism of these stages is rarely expressed. In the Orthodox churches there are sometimes crowns with six candles, because of the longer duration of Advent.

Advent candles (Advent candles, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Portschach_Adventkranz_privat_26222013_816.jpg)

In Sweden, the candles are white, symbol of festivity and purity, and the crown is reserved for the feast of Saint Lucia on December 13. In Canada, the Advent wreath is adorned with three violet candles and a pink candle; The pink candle being lit on the 3rd Sunday, it evokes the joy of the completion of waiting. In Austria, candles are purple, a sign of penance.

Giant Crown in Kaufbeuren (Bavaria, Germany) (Giant Crown in Kaufbeuren (Bavaria, Germany))

Advent calendar

Hotel decorated in the style of an Advent calendar in Germany (Hotel decorated in the style of an Advent calendar in Germany, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rathaus_Hünfeld_Adventskalender.JPG)

The tradition of the Advent calendar seems to have its roots in Germany in the nineteenth century when some Protestant families used to put forth every morning a pious image with a gospel sentence or an incitement to do a good deed, on the wall, for twenty-four days, in order to channel the impatience of the children until the day of Christmas. The images became more and more sumptuous from the 1850s and were even sometimes published in the form of triptychs, with shutters to open to discover the central drawing. It was this idea of masked images which gave that of the Advent calendar. The calendar is then traditionally created by the father of family and consists of a set of 24 windows that one opens each day to discover an image.

In the nineteenth century and during the greater part of the twentieth century, the advent calendar was only present in Germany and Alsace. In 1920, the first commercial Advent calendars appeared with their miniature doors and windows to open, and in 1958 the first calendar containing chocolates, as it is known today, is marketed. But it was not until the 1990s that the advent calendars really began to break through, in the wake of the increasing number of Christmas markets. The settlers who brought the tradition of this calendar, the United States, Australia and the other former English colonies, made a large place in the Advent calendar. With globalization helping, the calendar of Advent is found today in a great majority of the homes of the world.

The Advent calendar usually begins on the 1st and ends on December 24, which is not exactly the time of Advent beginning on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. Some calendars, closer to the original idea, do not systematically have 24 days, but a number of days varying between 22 and 28 according to the duration of Advent.

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