An Explanation of Advent

A delicious Advent calendar (Mahony)
A delicious Advent calendar (Mahony)

From chocolate calendars to wreaths in church, the season is all about anticipation.

Most Christmas customs in the US share two characteristics. First, it’s usually hard to pin down their origins to a single source. And second, their roots almost always reach back to religious custom — Christmas being the second most important feast day (behind Easter) on the Christian calendar — but have been happily adapted and, in some cases, scrubbed of religious content to make them more broadly palatable.

The celebration of Advent — whether with wreaths in church or calendars at home — is among these customs. On the one hand, it’s one of the major seasons celebrated by most Christian churches in the Western tradition: Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Episcopalians, Lutherans, and many additional Protestant churches mark the roughly month-long period with special observance.

But the word Advent comes from the Latin word for “arrival” — adventus — which means non-Christians can celebrate it simply as a fun countdown to Christmas. In that respect, it’s also become a marketing opportunity for retailers, mostly through Advent calendars, which have been around since the 19th century and have, of late, grown steadily more, shall we say, creative.

Most modern Advent calendars don’t technically cover the season of Advent

Most Advent calendars start on December 1. But the actual first day of the Advent season changes every year. In 2016, it was November 27. In 2017, it will be December 3. The final day is the same every year: December 24, Christmas Eve — though many calendars run through Christmas Day.

The reason for the shifting start date is simpler than it appears. As celebrated by Christian churches in the Western tradition (as opposed to Eastern Orthodox churches, which keep a different calendar), the season of Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, and is celebrated on each successive Sunday leading up to Christmas.

There are always four Sundays in Advent prior to Christmas, but Christmas could be any day of the week — which means the distance from the fourth Sunday of Advent to Christmas Day varies each year. So the length of the season shifts from year to year: In 2016, Christmas falls on a Sunday, which means the season stretches over a total of 28 days. In 2017, the Advent season will be only 22 days long. In 2018, it will be 23 days long.

Advent calendars, though, are more consistent. They’re all set up for a 24- or 25-day season, beginning December 1 and ending on Christmas Eve or, sometimes, Christmas Day. The reason for this is practical: Since the length of the Advent season changes from year to year, it’s easier to pick a fixed number of days for a calendar that can be reproduced or reused every season.

And Advent calendars are reused all the time. When I was growing up, the Advent calendar in our house had a picture of Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus in the manger, with little windows that we opened and read aloud — each contained a verse from the Christmas story. Others had Advent calendars that held a piece of chocolate to be eaten each day.

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