This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for December 3, 2020, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.
Happy New Year! Advent began a few days ago for many Christians who celebrate the Church Seasons, and it begins the New Church Year. Most of us who observe Advent do so by lighting the candles on an Advent Wreath (or “Crown”). No one knows for sure when this ancient tradition of the Advent Wreath began, but Church historians say it began in Germany, spread throughout Europe, and then to other continents, including ours.
The tradition I grew up with at Trinity Lutheran Church, Dime Box, which originated in Germany, called for a wreath made of greenery, namely fir, spruce, or cedar, and holly, the holly leaves suggesting a crown of thorns, and the holly berries, the blood of Christ. The three purple candles symbolized hope, peace, and love, and the one pink candle represented joy. The white Christ Candle was lighted on Christmas Day, representing the birth of the Christ Child.
My wife and I just lit such a Wreath this past Sunday, as did other Christians not from a German-Lutheran background. In some traditions, the colors of the candles are different, contemporary Christians often using blue rather than purple. Purple, a penitential color, puts the emphasis on Christ’s Second Coming at the End of Times, whereas blue puts the emphasis on Christ’s First Coming to Bethlehem.
The tradition that differs the most from ours is that of the Coptic Orthodox Christians in Ethiopia in Africa, where Advent is celebrated from November 25 until January 6, Christmas Day being January 7. In the Coptic Church, repentance is a very important theme of Advent, as members fast (using vegan diets) all during the days of Advent. Their Advent Crown has six candles, each a different color, — green for “faith,” blue for “hope,” gold for “love,” white for “peace,” purple for “repentance,” and red for “communion.”
Also rather different, are the Advent traditions in Sweden, where white candles are used, perhaps white because of the Swedish celebration of St. Lucia which comes during Advent on December 13. An East Bernard HS foreign exchange student from Sweden many years ago demonstrated this custom for us when she dressed in a white gown with a wreath of white candles (lit) on her head. St. Lucia, an early Christian martyr, was considered the “Bearer of Light” during the dark Swedish winters. I suppose St. Lucia wore her Advent Wreath on her head.
In the Czech Republic today, the Advent Wreaths are usually made of intertwined twigs, decorated with conifer cones, and rowan (a shrub that produces red berries) branches. In Prague, on the day before Advent, the city Christmas tree is lighted. In other respects, the observances are similar to those in other Slavic countries.
Just as in Sweden where St. Lucia’s Day (December 13) is observed in the middle of Advent, in Mexico, the day of Our Lady of Guadalupe is also celebrated mid-Advent on December 12. The Mexican Advent Wreath, usually referred to as a “Crown,” is quite similar to ours, with three purple and one pink candle.
As my friend from Mexico once told me, Las Posadas (“the Inns”) also begins in Advent and is a part of Advent; it starts on December 16 and ends of December 24. Las Posadas commemorates Mary and Joseph’s traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Folks often dress like Mary and Joseph, and with a donkey, go from house to house, asking if there is room for them to stay. There is much singing and breaking piñatas. How splendid to celebrate the joy of the Holy Birth that is about to happen in Bethlehem!
I greatly enjoy festivals and festivities, and over the years have studied those of other countries and other ethnicities and am impressed with the human being’s need to and capacity for celebrating with joy. Advent’s solemn observance of repentance alternates with celebrating the coming joy of the Christ Child who comes into this world at Christmas. While Santa Claus and Rudolph bring great fun into our lives this time of year, Advent observances and meditations bring us deeply felt joy, along with thoughts of hope, peace, and love. Oh, how we need these in 2020!
Ray Spitzenberger is a retired WCJC teacher, a retired LCMS pastor, and the author of two books, It Must Be the Noodles and Open Prairies.