The anticipation of Christmas is considered by many one of the great joys of the season. These days there are websites and social media groups dedicated to counting down days to Christmas and cable television channels have adopted a countdown to Christmas as a way to get all their new holiday content shown during the course of a season. Counting down to Christmas is a time-honored tradition.
It is older than you might suppose. Some draw it back to advent calendars crafted by mid-19th centuries German carpenters who constructed delicately decorated wooden calendars that featured a treat for each day’s door that is opened leading up to Christmas. Those early advent calendars have given way to a wide variety of wood, metal, plastic and paper calendars of every creative type. But even that European tradition fails to explain the idea of advent.
The Latin word for advent means “coming” and the use of it in relation to Christmas is to teach not only of the coming of the Messiah in the form of Jesus Christ and his birth into the world but also of his 2nd coming, an event that is yet to transpire.
“Coming” is a spiritual theme of many meanings. It relates not only to the anticipated physical presence of The Christ. Jesus said, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) This relates to Jesus’ title of The Prince of Peace, meaning that those who believe on Him might find forgiveness through righteous living.
Coming unto Christ also indicates a changed being, one who has mastered temptations of the flesh and become elevated in spiritual purpose. “And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). To come unto Christ means to obey, have faith, and follow precepts that would allow one “to become perfected in Him.”
Churches ancient and modern have attempted to teach advent or “coming unto Christ” through the use of a symbolic series of events culminating in the celebration of Christ’s coming, the Nativity. Some mark these events with calendars, others by lighting candles representing each day. Some hold special events or meals around the theme of specific feast days of advent. Advent is marked in many, many ways.
Christianity in the 4th century declared advent by identifying the four Sundays previous to Christmas as feast days of certain Saints, who all taught individual principles of righteousness. These days led to Epiphany, or the celebration of Christ’s nativity, life and miracles. That Christmas, or the morphed celebration of the winter solstice centered around the birth of Christ, fell during the same time was as much a matter of convenience as it as a practical teaching moment of Christ to pagan and gentile peoples who lack Christian religious training.
Advent has quickly become a more secular element of Christmas. In a 2012 poll conducted by My Merry Christmas more than 60 percent of respondents associated advent more with counting down to Christmas day through chocolate treats than any kind of tie to religious teaching.
But like Santa Claus advent is a strictly religious element adopted by secular celebrants of Christmas and stripped of its original meaning and purpose, continuing the tug-of-war over who “owns” or created Christmas in the first place.