Advent and Advent Calendars

The Lord Will Come and not be Slow
(John Milton)

Ah, Advent! The season when children’s faces and some adults’ faces, too – mine, anyway – light up while, day by day, they open whatever kind of Advent calendar has come their way. I vividly remember, aged four, my first, sparkly one, so any calendar today is a fast track down nostalgia lane.

Advent in Church terms begins on the Sunday nearest 30 November and covers the period from then until Christmas Eve, while in popular use it starts on 1 December. It refers to Jesus’s forthcoming arrival into the world and also to his eventual return one day in the Second Coming. (I say a bit about the word’s origins at the end.)

In a largely post-Christian Britain, it’s probably fair to say that many will experience greater excitement over Advent calendars than over the event Advent leads up to. In fact, some Advent calendarslong ago morphed from winter scenes revealed by opening tiny doors, or even the simple serotonin- and dopamine-induced high of chocolates concealed behind such doors.

Brands and retailers long ago adventjacked the calendars and turned them into an excuse for conspicuous consumption to the tune of several hundred or even several thousand pounds.

Where did Advent calendars start?

If this were a film about the history of Advent calendars, we would now hear the voiceover saying, “But it wasn’t always like that…” and then be presented with a snow-infused shot of a Victorian family whose adorably fresh-faced and well-behaved children are gleefully opening one of the minuscule* doors to reveal a nativity scene, or angels, or reindeer, and so forth.

Then the viewer hears an ear-shattering #$@!%%!?ф¡¡16йщ3¿¿ (denoting a classic film sound effect that this scene is completely wrong).

The most likely origin of Advent calendars is touchingly domestic and certainly not British. Accounts vary, but according to one tradition, the first was made by a mother in Munich for her little son to stop him asking over and over again when Christmas would come. She stuck twenty-four tiny sweets to a sheet of cardboard for her boy to eat one day at a time. According to another version, the first printed Advent calendars were produced in 1851 in Germany, but a late nineteenth-century date or even an early twentieth-century one also seems possible.

What is certainly true is that the earlier calendars featured images which children would cut out and affix to the background of the calendar. And those images were generally religious in nature, such as scenes of the Nativity. It was only in the 1920s that doorlets that could be prised open were introduced. Some calendars have twenty-four doors, some twenty-five, to include Christmas Day.

This links to a rather novel Advent calendar: a haiku per day, going through the twenty-four books of the Hebrew Bible (all of which are in the Protestant Bible).

While lavish calendars stuffed with goods may be a thing, booksellers and other outlets still stock plenty of the simpler kind. In our home, we alternate between using a calendar with doors, each revealing a bird or animal in a nostalgic winter scene, and one with an imposing Nordic stable for the reindeer where you insert them, their harnesses and accoutrements into little slots so they sit upright.

Bringing light in the darkness of winter

The origins of the Advent wreath are also German. A certain Johann Hinrich Wichern was a philanthropist who took in street children into homes he established in Hamburg. In the run-up to Christmas, he would tell them the Christmas story and every day add an extra candle to the circular holders hanging from the ceiling. Doing this was a sort of visual religious parable, answering to Jesus’s saying “I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” (John 8:12)

And in the north of the northern hemisphere, where December days are at their shortest, light has a powerful, poetic resonance. For instance, in Sweden on 13 December people celebrate the Feast of Sankta Lucia, Saint Lucy, a big part of their Advent tradition. Saint Lucy was a fourth-century martyr, and she becomes the bringer of light in the depths of winter. In fact, her very name is based on the Latin for ‘light’, lux. In Swedish churches on 13 December, one woman representing Saint Lucy leads a group of other women, all robed in baptismal white and carrying candles, while she is crowned with a wreath of lighted candles.

And why does Saint Lucy’s day fall on 13 December? Because that was the shortest day in the Julian Calendar.

Similarly, on the theme of light, in UK churches, one candle will be lit every Sunday of the four before Christmas. In other words, religious Advent, unlike Advent calendars, doesn’t start on 1 December but on the Sunday nearest to 30 November, which this year will be 27 November. The Church of England collect (the word is pronounced stressing the first syllable and means a short prayer said by the officiant before the bible reading) for Advent Sunday opens with this metaphor of light:

Almighty God,
give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and to put on the armour of light

And light is the central feature of the Jewish menorah. The version with seven candles refers to the style of lamp used in the Temple. Eight candles of the version with nine candles, which is technically not a menorah but a hanukiah, signify how many days the oil burned, by miracle, in the Temple after it was recaptured by the Macabees in 164 bc, while the ninth is a “helper” candle to light the others with.

***

This Advent, leading up to Christmas, should always be written with a capital A, being a proper noun. The common noun* advent, with a lower-case a, means the arrival of something or someone.

(* “common” in grammatical terms, in contrast to proper nouns. It isn’t very common, of course – not the sort of word you’d hear down the pub.)

Both versions come from the Latin adventus, which was used in Classical Latin and in the Vulgate, the fourth-century version of the Bible produced by the scholarly Saint Jerome, who is often portrayed in mediaeval and Renaissance paintings at work in his study. And adventus in turn derives from advenīre, from ad, meaning ‘to’ + venire, ‘to come’. The religious use of the term in Latin is a translation of the Greek parousia (παρουσία) referring to Jesus’s second coming.

As for when the tradition of marking the lead-up to Christmas started, it was certainly in force by ad 480 and thus dates back to an early phase of the development of the Church in Europe. However, monks were enjoined to fast rather than, as we tend to, feast.

I won’t be fasting. There are too many good things to eat, as this week’s words suggest. Ought I to be ashamed to say that I’ll be eating panettone, a hangover from when I lived in Italy; lebkuchen, to remember my beloved German stepmother? And they will contain plenty of marzipan, cinnamon and nutmeg. And the mincemeat in mince pies goes without saying.

Whether you’re fasting or feasting, I’m sure everyone at Collins dictionaries joins me in wishing you a joyous Advent.

* I almost forgot. The original spelling is minUscule, via French from Latin, but pronunciation of that middle u as an i and also the link to mini and its compounds have conspired to produce the spelling miniscule with a central i, which Collins accepts as an alternative form. But bear in mind some people don’t.

By Jeremy Butterfield
Jeremy Butterfield is the former Editor-in-Chief of Collins Dictionaries, and editor of the fourth, revised edition of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage.

All opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual writers, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or policies of Collins, or its parent company, HarperCollins.

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