December Rituals: Treasuring the Nascent Light

You turned the 2016 Thanksgiving page. You made it back home from your travels, you ate all leftovers, and even purchased a few presents on Cyber Monday! You are now relishing the scents of cedar, cinnamon and nutmeg while preparing for the Holiday Season.

Every year around this time I think about something not quite as present in the U.S. as it was in Europe, especially in Germanic cultures: Advent.

Did you ever celebrate it, and if so, did you wonder about the roots of that beautiful, round wreath with four candles?

Advent wreaths and calendars were a big part of my Holiday traditions growing up, adding glow and excitement to December. With an atheist father and an agnostic mother, I learned to enjoy the rituals without pondering too much about their origins and meaning. I was taught me that theses seasonal customs with candles and lights are of pagan origin, and that they were started to brighten the darkest season of the year.

Winter Solstice and Christianity

To this day, decades later and an ocean away, I still cherish and delight in my December rites. As I delved into their origins, this is what I found.

Advent comes from the Latin ‘adventus’, which means coming.

Although a Christian ritual, the Advent Season has pagan roots. In Christianity, the four weeks prepare us for the coming of Jesus Christ. Not coincidentally, the end of Advent falls around the Winter Solstice. The wreath in the shape of a circle represents God’s eternal nature for Christians, but can be traced to pre-Christian heritage.

Pagan Origins

Pre-Christian Germanic people used wreaths with lit candles during the cold and dark December days in hope of warmer and longer days to come in spring. In Scandinavia, lit candles were placed around a cartwheel’s wheel which would temporarily serve as a chandelier, and prayers were sent to the God of Light to lengthen the days and restore warmth. By the Middle Ages, Christians adapted this tradition and used Advent wreaths as part of their spiritual preparation for Christmas.

Similarly, the Jewish tradition celebrates Hanukkah, the triumph of light over darkness, during eight days in December. Historically, when lighting the menorah in the Holy Temple after having driven the Greeks out of the Land, all olive oil used as fuel was contaminated, except for one cruse. While it should have been enough for one night, it miraculously lasted eight, enough time to procure new, pure oil. Today, the menorah is lit every day during the eight days of Hanukkah.

Christian Traditions

Scholars in Christianity believe that before the 6th century the Advent season was meant to prepare for the baptism of new Christians on the day of the Epiphany.

Only from the 6h century on was the Season tied to the coming of Jesus: more to his second coming initially, then to both the first and the second after the middle ages. In line with previous pagan traditions, Christ was the light who came to the world to dispel the darkness of sin, while radiating the love of God (John 3:19-21). Both Catholics and Lutherans developed rituals involving the Advent wreath.

Advent Calendars

The Advent calendar covers December 1st through 24th or 25th, and does not coincide exactly with the four weeks during which the Advent wreath is lit (one candle each Sunday for the four Sundays preceding Christmas). It is more of a countdown to Christmas.

The first printed calendars were made in Germany around 1900. Behind each of the doors there typically was an image or bible verse to reflect on during this time of preparation. Calendar production was briefly interrupted after World War II, as Germany ran out of cardboard. Later, the ‘treat’ behind each door was upgraded to chocolate, much to any child’s delight!

Over the years, Advent calendar creators have produced interesting versions, some more tasteful than others. Politics set aside, I have decided on the White House Calendar this year, in honor our First Couple’s last Christmas there: featuring Rush Limbaugh, Oprah and the red-faced John Edwards. Though my favorites are beautiful buildings with its windows converted to calendar doors, like this masterpiece in Forchheim, Bavaria.

 

Amid Advent wreaths and calendars, menorahs, pine trees, St. Nicholas’ visit on December 6th and Winter Solstice there are many traditions to choose from as we approach the end of our calendar year.

What are your Season favorites?

While contemplating what most speaks to you, may you enjoy a peaceful Season that allows you to wrap-up 2016 and prepare for a successful 2017.