The Sunday nearest the 30th November is the beginning of the time of Advent, the four-week-period before Christmas in the Western Christian calendar. It is a very special season in Germany and my favourite time of year.
In the afternoon, after early night had fallen, Mother lit the first candle on the Advent wreath, the first slice of Stollen (German Christmas cake) was cut and a plate of spiced biscuits appeared on the festive Kaffeetafel (German tea table). There was music too, either Hausmusik, played and sung by members of the family, or more likely, special collections of old-familiar music associated with the time of year, on CD etc.
The Advent wreath was always homemade then, the same large, horizontal, circular frame was used every year. Florist’s foam and thin wire fixed twigs and swags of evergreens like pine, ivy and holly to the frame. Four candleholders for thick candles were attached to it and any unevenness in the final design was hidden with red ribbons tied into bows. The wreath either sat in the middle of the table during meals or, if very large, was suspended on red ribbons above the table. Some houses had a hook in the ceiling the whole year round just for this purpose.
The origins of the Advent wreath are not altogether clear. Some believe that the wreath is much older than Christianity, and was, in fact, a symbol of the eternal circle of the seasons and the lighted candles signified the persistence of life in the darkness of winter.
A story told about a Protestant theologian by the name of Johann Heinrich Wichern (1808-1881) says that he was the inventor of the first modern Advent wreath. He was a good man who had taken a number of poor boys into his home, to bring them up and educate them. Apparently, these boys gave him no peace in the weeks before Christmas, always asking when the feast would finally come (an early version of “are we there yet”) and he decided to create a wooden wreath with as many candles as there were days left before Christmas so that the boys could count the days themselves.
Lately, the Advent calendar has taken over this role, although I cannot find the garish monstrosities sold in shops with a cheap chocolate hidden behind every door in the least bit attractive. We had the old-fashioned sort, at first home-made; and when the windows in the large cardboard calendar with its amateurish, hand-painted pictures finally came off their folds and were beyond repair, we bought a calendar, a pretty snow scene, depicting a rather kitsch Christmas market and an imaginary cathedral, which was also in use for many years.
It won’t be many days before I start digging in my own box of Advent decorations; although I swear every year, that I will go easy, save myself the trouble, and ask myself ‘why bother’, the wooden figures, the pyramid, the candles and candle bow (Schwibbogen) will shortly make an appearance.
At this time of year, sentimentality rules okay! And there’s a glass of Glühwein to go with it.