Advent is far more than an excuse to open the chocolate-laden calendar. It is a special time in the Christian Year – a special time of preparation. Nativity is the birth of Jesus Christ and the feast of Christmas as a commemoration of this birth.
The second half of the Old Testament revolves around God’s people in exile, awaiting the coming of the Saviour. This is the setting for Advent: a time of suspense and anticipation, hope and longing, lament and repentance – and ultimately joy. There are some who believe the modern church has lost sight of the Christian Year and has seen Advent swallowed up by Christmas. The church holds off singing “Alleluia” through Lent until Easter arrives, but singing songs about the birth of Jesus is commonplace in the build up to the night the church officially celebrates His coming.
Advent comes from the Latin words Adventus, which means ‘coming’ or ‘visit’, and is a season in the Christian year that lasts for about four weeks. It is a time for the preparation of Christmas…for the coming of Jesus Christ. This refers to the celebration of Christ’s birth, his first coming. But is also in anticipation of his second coming.
Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas and ends on Christmas Eve. The colours of Advent are purple, pink and dark blue. A central white Christ-candle is used for Christmas Eve/Day. Many churches combine the colours of Advent with the reds, greens and golds of Christmas. Advent wreaths, resplendent with candles, are used to mark the passage of the season. German theologian Johann Hinrich Wichern (1808-1881) is credited with this creation in 1839.
The third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is the Latin word for ‘rejoice’. Blue or rose-coloured church robes may be worn on this day instead of purple. The third candle on the Advent wreath can also be rose-coloured.
Southern Germany during Advent is known for Klopfelnachte or Knocking Night, when figures in disguise or children dressed as shepherds go from house to house on the Thursdays of Advent, knocking on doors, crying out that the Lord is coming, wishing neighbours well and offering sweet treats. It’s a kind of trick or treating in reverse. Early in Advent, also in Germany, St. Nicholas is helped by 12 Buttenmandln. They are young men in masks, wearing straw cloaks and carrying cowbells. Gifts are given before the Buttenmandln become playfully boisterous with the children in attendance and drive them from the room in laughter.
From the 6th century to the 9th century, Advent began on November 12 and was also known as St. Martin’s Lent. Like the Lenten fast before Easter, this was a strictly observed 40-day fast. This was followed in later years by a four-week fast that was broken on Christmas Day. From the 12th century onwards, when it was left to the conscience of each individual as to how much they should limit their intake, fasting became less and less the norm – except perhaps for Christmas Eve.
A group of nanotech science specialists in Germany got into the Christmas spirit in December 2007 by making what they believe is the smallest ever Advent calendar. It would take about five million of the miniature calendars to cover a postage stamp.
Advent music should not be confused with Christmas music, even though both undoubtedly receive airplay throughout the entire festive season. Traditional Advent hymns include the magnificent “O Come O Come Emmanuel!” and the 18th century “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”, written by 22-year-old pastor Robert Robinson. There is also the splendid “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus”, with the lyrics “Come Thou long expected Jesus, Born to set Thy people free. From our fears and sins release us, Let us find our rest in Thee.” “Gabriel’s Message” is also sung in the Advent period. This is a beautiful Basque Christmas folk carol, also known as “The Angel Gabriel From Heaven Came”.
Advent calendars, counting down from December 1st to Christmas Day, are big business. The first printed Advent calendar dates back to the early 1900s. Reichold and Lang’s printers in Germany produced some of the first mass-made calendars until the 1930s. It was only after the end of rationing in the 1950s in the UK that chocolates were increasingly included as daily Advent treats behind each tiny door. Visit our Advent Calendars section under The Christmas Home for more calendar ideas.
Nativity Plays, Scenes and Creches
A Nativity play – sometimes referred to as a Christmas pageant – recounts the story surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ. The first Nativity play, as we understand them today, is credited to St. Francis of Assisi on Christmas Eve 1223. He performed Midnight Mass in Greccio, Italy in front of a life-size Nativity scene built by Giovanni Velita, along with live animals. More formal Nativity plays have featured in Christian worship since Medieval times.
Today, children annually perform Nativity plays in schools and churches in the run up to Christmas – one of the most touching and innocent of festive traditions in the UK and beyond. In Latin America, there are performances known as ‘Pastorelas’ (Shepherds’ Plays) that combine aspects of the Nativity story with regional beliefs and features, even satire and comedy.
Setting up a Nativity scene each Christmas can be one of the joys of the season and a lovely way to acknowledge how Christmas came to be. Nativity scenes, cribs or crèches come in many sizes – from the miniature terracotta sets used in Mexico to the impressive, imposing figures that stand outside grand religious buildings. One of the most breathtaking crèches can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of New York each December. The famous Angel Tree takes pride of place in the museum’s Medieval Sculpture Hall. It has 18th century Neapolitan figures re-enacting the events of Jesus Christ’s Nativity at its base, while skilfully crafted angels hang from the branches above.
Whatever your taste and style, there will be a Nativity set out there to suit you. Modern, traditional, large, small, wood, porcelain, paper and plastic – the mix is seemingly endless.
christmascribs.com – Christmas Cribs has delightful handmade figures that will appeal to both young and old alike. All the products are made by husband and wife team David and Joan Kottler, who were frustrated at the Nativity options available to their children in the seventies so decided to make their own. Soon, a cottage industry was flourishing. Pieces can be bought separately and collected year-by-year or purchased in beautiful sets.
traidcraftshop.co.uk – There are some wonderful Fair Trade options including at Traidcraft, who offer a hand-carved Nativity set from Indonesia that will appeal to all generations.
cenacle.co.uk – Cenacle Catholic Books and Catholic Gifts has a 12-piece wooden set of robust, chunky, child-friendly figures in vibrant colours, made by a solidarity workshop in the Philippines and perfect for an infant’s introduction to the Nativity. Cenacle also offers a traditional 10-inch set of eleven resin figures that are hand-painted with gold accents, along with many more options.
thechinaman.co.uk – There are many beautiful, ornate and fragile options out there – most definitely for adults only. Special porcelain pieces by Nao would become lifetime treasures and are available online through The Chinaman, Nao’s official UK shop. Nao’s figures are hand crafted by artisans in the ‘City of Porcelain’ – Valencia, Spain.
alessi.com – You don’t just have to place a Nativity set under the Christmas tree or on the sideboard – you can have it on the tree. We are talking sets of Nativity figures by Alessi. The baubles include Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus, a donkey, an ox, an angel, three kings and a star and are available through a variety of online stockists. There are many other Nativity scenes in tree decoration form, most commonly on hand-painted baubles, silver-plated ornaments (see newbridgesilverware.com) or Wedgwood Blue bauble (see wedgwood.co.uk).
Elf Helper: There are Nativity poems we would like to bring to your attention. “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” is by John Milton (1608-1674), regarded as one of the preeminent writers in British history. Not only was he a gifted poet but also a civil servant under the rule of Oliver Cromwell. His most famous work is “Paradise Lost”. “Nativity” is by John Donne (1572-1631), who was an English poet, lawyer, satirist and cleric in the Church of England. His poetry is noted for its vibrancy of language and clever use of metaphor.