What is Advent anyway?

shutterstock 726165592 Advent candles. | Romolo Tavini/Shutterstock

Advent begins this year on Sunday, Dec. 3. Most Catholics, even those who don’t often go to Mass, know that Advent involves a wreath with candles, possibly a “calendar” of hidden chocolates, and untangling strings of Christmas lights. But Advent is much more than that. Here is an explainer of what Advent is really about.

What is Advent?

The people of Israel waited for generations for the promised Messiah to arrive. Their poetry, their songs and stories, and their religious worship focused on an awaited savior who would come to them to set them free from captivity and to lead them to the fulfillment of all that God had promised.

Israel longed for a Messiah, and John the Baptist, who came before Jesus, promised that the Messiah was coming and could be found in Jesus Christ, God’s Son, the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”

Advent is a season in the Church’s life intended to renew the experience of waiting and longing for the Messiah. Though Christ has already come into the world, the Church invites us to renew our desire for the Lord more deeply in our lives and to renew our desire for Christ’s triumphant second coming into the world.

Advent is the time in which we prepare for Christmas, the memorial of Jesus Christ being born into the world. Preparations are practical, like decorating trees and gift giving, but they’re also intended to be spiritual.

During Advent, we’re invited to enter more frequently into silence, into prayer and reflection, into Scripture, and into the sacramental life of the Church — all to prepare for celebrating Christmas.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says the goal of Advent is to make present for ourselves and our families the “ancient expectancy of the Messiah ... by sharing in the long preparation for the Savior’s first coming.”

What does the word Advent mean?

Advent comes from the Latin “ad + venire,” which means, essentially, “to come” to” or “to come toward.” “Ad + venire” is the root of the Latin “adventus,” which means “arrival.”

So Advent is the season of arrival: the arrival of Christ in our hearts, in the world, and into God’s extraordinary plan for our salvation.

So, it’s four weeks long?

Advent is a slightly different length each year. It starts four Sundays before Christmas. But because Christmas is on a fixed date, and could fall on different days of the week, Advent can be as short as three weeks and a day (like it is this year), or as long as four weeks.

Is Advent the ‘new year’?

The Church’s feasts and celebrations run on a yearlong cycle, which we call the “liturgical year.” The “liturgical year” starts on the first Sunday of Advent. So it’s a new liturgical year when Advent starts. But the Church also uses the ordinary calendar, so it would probably be a bit weird to have a “New Year’s Eve” party the night before Advent starts.

Advent wreaths: Where do they come from?

The Catholic Church has been using Advent wreaths since the Middle Ages. Lighting candles as we prepare for Christmas reminds us that Christ is the light of the world. And the evergreen boughs remind us of new and eternal life in Christ, the eternal son of the Father. 

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It is definitely true that Germanic people were lighting up candle wreaths in wintertime long before the Gospel arrived in their homeland. They did so because candle wreaths in winter are beautiful and warm. That a Christian symbol emerged from that tradition is an indication that the Gospel can be expressed through the language, customs, and symbols of cultures that come to believe that Christ Jesus is Lord.

One candle is pink — why?

There are four candles on the Advent wreath. Three are purple and lit on the first, second, and fourth Sundays of Advent. The pink candle is lit on the third Sunday of Advent, which we call Gaudete Sunday. On that Sunday, in addition to the pink candle, the priest wears a pink vestment, which he might refer to as “rose.”

Gaudete is a word that means “rejoice,” and we rejoice on Gaudete Sunday because we are halfway through Advent. Some people have the custom of throwing Gaudete parties, and this is also a day on which Christmas carolers may begin caroling door-to-door.

The three purple candles are sometimes said to represent prayer, fasting, and almsgiving — the three spiritual disciplines that are key to a fruitful Advent.

Is it wrong to sing Christmas songs during Advent?

No, but there are a lot of great Advent hymns and songs, such as “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus,” “O Come Divine Messiah,” “Come Thou Fount,” “Hark! A Thrilling Voice is Sounding.”

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When should the tree go up?

When to put up the tree is a decision that families decide on their own. Some people put up their tree and decorate it on the first Sunday of Advent to make a big transformation in their home and get them into “preparing for Christmas” mode.

Some put up the tree on the first Sunday of Advent, put on lights the next Sunday, ornaments the next, and decorate it more and more as they get closer to Christmas.

Some put up the tree on Gaudete Sunday, as a kind of rejoicing, and decorate it in the weeks between Gaudate and Christmas.

When the tree goes up and gets decorated is up to the individual and family, but having a Christmas tree is a big part of many people’s Advent tradition.

This explainer was initially published in November 2019 and has been updated.

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