Sunday, 29 November 2009

The First Sunday in Advent

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.


  1. I know that the Catholic liturgical colors of purple and pink are used in the church now. I have a glass wreath, a gift from a friend, and those colored candles are hard to find. I now use purple and pink ribbon on white candles to suffice. You are right Tradition is the rule of the day for this season. Hang on as long as you can. Blessings to you.

  2. Friko: For those of us who grew up in non-religious families, or families that eschewed Christmas, this is a beautiful explanation of the tradition of Advent. I adore how frank and forthright you are in your opinions about the garish, trashy stuff that passes for Christmas decor. But for all your practical nature, it is wonderful to hear you admit that there are many sentimental bones in your body. Of course, any of us who follow you regularly know that.

    Wish I lived nearby and could drop in for a cuppa and a slice of Stollen and see your decorative treasures.

  3. For years I had a stand from which the advent wreathe hung - so pretty. I enjoy all these traditions, but like you, stay away from junky bits and pieces. When the children were young I'd take them out of school for a day to visit the Kristkindmarkt where we'd buy one little wooden angel to add to the angel orchestra - our version of a calendar, of sorts, as we put the little group together, one angel at a time.

  4. I've not many religious bones in my body but would be a fool to deny that this is not a special time of year. Forget the plastic fripperies and gee-gaws which the modern world has foist upon it - give me light/candles and evergreens and special words to mark the shortening days and then the miracle when they grow again.

  5. Friko

    I really enjoyed reading this post, a nicely written background to the tradition along with your honest views and memories.

  6. Liebe Ursula,

    ich wünsche Dir von Herzen eine schöne Adventszeit, voller Gerüche, Erinnerungen und wunderschöner Erlebnisse. Auch ich liebe diese besinnliche Zeit im Jahr ganz besonders und werde in diesem Jahr (am 3. Adventwochenende) mir zum ersten Mal den Christkindel Markt in Nürnberg anschauen. Ich werde Bilder mitbringen.

    ganz liebe Grüße

  7. friko this was a special post to me as it awakens thoughts and hopes for my own children and their experiencing of this time of year. i didn't know about the advent wreath. so thankyou. steven

  8. Thank you very much for this journey back home. The first candle burning at my site, I'd like to wish you all a wonderful start into the new week.

  9. Friko, I am another fan of Advent, and have got my new Advent calendar up and waiting for the moment to open that first window. (I always get calendars that are from Germany, with whimsical scenes, and a bit of glitter on the snow that always plays a part in the scene.)

    Thank you for getting me into this special season this Sunday evening. xo

  10. This is a nice insight in the origins of advent and makes it so much more meaningful. I will put out a few decorations, but not too many visitors to come see.

  11. QMM - I knew about the purple, pink and white candles too, but as mine have always been red, they shall stay so. I have no intention of giving up my Advent rituals, they make this time so very special. Have a wonderful time, QMM.

    Bonnie - At this time of year I happily unpack all my sentimental bones. I wish you could come and visit, I'm sure we'd have a great deal in common.

    Pondside - I too have an orchestra of tiny angels, which comes out to sit on its stand every year. I shall have to take a photo of all my silly carved figures and post it.

    mountainear - my religious bones are more of a faint memory of childhood ritual; as far as that goes, I hope to unpack them every year for as long as I can.

    Martin H - thank you Martin, It is a pleasure to write about something one likes.

    veredit - Danke fuer den Kommentar. Ich were bei dir reinschauen und meine Gruesse uebermitteln.

    Steven - Making it possible for children to take happy memories into their adult lives is a very lovely thing to do. Make the season special and they will be forever enthralled by it.

    Robert - Ich hoffe, die Kerzen bringen dir die Heimat naeher. Ich wuensche dir einen schoenen Advent.

    Frances - I am glad to know that you have an Advent calendar and I will now imagine you opening a little window every day and counting the days until the Christkind comes to bring you gifts. There is a child hidden in all of us and at this time of year I feel we can let it out without embarrassment.

    Tabor - I hope you will enjoy the decorations, they make the season special, cause it stand out in this dark and dismal winter time. Candles are my favourites.

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  13. I love the idea of your advent wreath. I might even have a go myself. I used to love advent calendars (not the chocolate kind, not necessary!) and my children loved them too!

  14. As a child I went to a private Methodist school and I have nice memories of the Advent wreath. It was always special to be chosen to light the specified candle at school. I made a hand embroidered Advent calendar last year so my daughter was able to look forward to something each evening and to count down the days until first her birthday and then Christmas. It has become a fun tradition in our home. I enjoyed reading about your traditions.

  15. Friko,
    I'm happy to have both the knowledge that there is an Advent wreath in some cultures, and the explanation for it. I have an Advent 'tree', actually a lovely felt wall-hanging made by my sister-in-law upon which we put a new decoration every day. I smiled at your description of the old calendar that got worn out. I have one of those too and can't bear to throw it out.

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  17. The advent wreath is a lovely idea - a tradition I didn't know about. I had an advent calendar for my children - little numbered doors with pictures relating to the Christmas story behind them. Certainly no chocolates. Presents were only for Christmas Day itself.

  18. Ivy - okay, wir haben das Problem geloest.

    elizabethm - have a go, there not hard to make at all.

    Shattered - that must be a very special calendar, why not let it become a family tradition.

    Deborah - I certainly wouldn't throw it out, it'll have too many memories attached to it.

    Tony - thank you Tony, but no thank you.

    When I am Rich - Have one for yourself, why not?

  19. 1. Advent und zwei Kerzen brennen am Adventskranz:-)
    Wünsche Dir eine gesegnete Adventszeit.
    LG Gisela


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