Because Christmas has become the most important holiday of all in the traditionally-Christian countries, Advent has become a preparation not just for the Christ child, but also for everything else that happens Christmas day.
Most people spend all four weeks of Advent (and then some!) buying or making gifts to give out for Christmas, scheduling Christmas travel, and setting up the bounties of the big Christmas meal. By the time it’s over, we need a vacation from the holiday!
In colder, wintry countries, Christmas time is when we celebrate what winter holds in store—snow, skis, sleds, warm drink, icicles, glittering ice-covered trees, fireplaces, snowmen, snowball fights, skating, and a refreshing nip in the air.
Everyone has their favorite holiday foods. Good old-fashioned puddings are made in advance with sweet soft fruit such as raisins, currants, citrus peels, figs, pomegranates and prunes, plus brandy, and then jarred and chilled to age several days to a week, so that the flavors meld. Mince pies are made of a dried fruit mix, and sometimes finely chopped lamb or venison. (The meatless, low-fat varieties are most common today.)
A Gaelic custom is to bake cakes during the last week of Advent, store them, then take them out just before Christmas to spread on almond paste and/or a sweet goo such as cake frosting or honey. On the days before Christmas, Europeans bake plaited breads in a long oval shape, to look like a well-wrapped Christ child. Just as Lent is a fast, Christmas is a feast.
In some traditions, such as in the Philippines, families start the Christmas feast right after returning from the late-night or midnight Christ’s Mass. The typical fare is some form of ham, cheese balls and hot cocoa.
Quite possibly the most fun during Advent is found when caroling. Most caroling today is done between Advent 2 and Advent 4, far enough away from Christmas day so that people still have time for their Christmas preparations but not so far away as to miss the feel of the season.
Carols are about Christmas more than Advent, and include mainly well-known hymns and popular-style songs, some of which are not at all religious (it’s always been that way), and a few of which aren’t all that merry (especially the medieval songs). Caroling also involves cheery greetings, camaraderie, a lot of walking, meeting strangers and shut-ins, and simple old-style dances. It’s a great way to get to know each other, learn your neighborhood, and do a lot of blissful singing.
Even bad singers can carol! Just remember, it’s a no-grump zone. Caroling became popular in the Northern Hemisphere’s cold-weather areas, so the traditions reflect the needs of shivering carolers.
Somewhere at (or near) the end, the carolers often receive a cup of cheer—hot liquid refreshment such as apple cider with cinnamon, or cocoa with whipped cream or marshmallows, warm egg nog (spiked with rum or whiskey and spiced with vanilla, nutmeg, and/or ginger), glgg (a warm spiced wine drink from Scandinavia), or espresso cappuccino coffee. Or, a warm root beer mixed with 20 percent Dr Pepper, cinnamon, and a small amount of fruit punch. I’m partial to an alcohol-free hot cider drink amply spiced with ginger, cinnamon and a dash of nutmeg.
Usually there’s finger-food and cake to go with it. That way, there are warmed bodies to go with the warm spirits and the cold weather.
A common Advent tradition is that of the Advent wreath. The wreath is made of evergreen branches with four candleholders and candles, often hung from the ceiling.
Since in Advent we’re waiting for the Christ child, there needs to be a ceremonial way to mark the time and make us aware of the wait. Lighting a candle reminds us of Christ as light of the world. As the candle is lit, it’s customary to sing a verse or two of “O Come O Come Emmanuel.”
One candle is lit for each Sunday in Advent: one on the first Sunday, two on the second, and so on. Some in high-church circles frown on Advent wreaths in the sanctuary and lighting ceremonies during worship.
Where that happens, those ceremonies can still be a part of how your Advent worship at home. The kids can have lots of fun making the wreath. For fire safety at home, it’s usually better to put the candles on a separate candle-holder instead of on the wreath, putting the holder where it is kept away from flammables. (We moderns are much clumsier with candles than our ancestors, for whom candles were a part of everyday life.)
Use a five-candle holder with a place for a middle candle, then put in four red candles (one for each Sunday in Advent) and one white candle (for lighting on Christmas day), lit in the same pattern as for the wreath. On Christmas day, all four red ones are lit, and then the Christmas candle
In Latino countries, the days before Christmas are marked by the posada, the journey of Mary and Joseph to find shelter in the days before Jesus’ birth. The people playing the roles go from house to house, being turned away at each, until a house takes them in—with a party ready to start upon their arrival.
Another common tradition is that of decorating and blessing their Christmas tree.
The Sundays before Christmas (Advent 3 or 4) are often set aside for this task. Decorations include colored lights, balls (originally used to reflect a tree’s candlelight in a dazzling way), tinsel (resembling the glittering icicles found on fir trees in icy lands), chrismons (wood, foam or embroidered symbols and monograms for Christ), and on top, a star.
Traditionally, the house decorations stay up until Epiphany, 12 days after Christmas. The tree may have to come down slightly earlier if it dries out. The fragrance released when the tree is removed is memorably refreshing. The tar from the fallen needles may prove hard to remove from a shag rug. Korean Christians often put cotton “snow” on their decorations.
The use of trees and decorations are definitely rooted in Europe’s pre-Christian religions. The pagan customs were transformed by the early missionaries so that they express some aspect of Christian belief. Sometimes, the meaning was much the same as the pagans treasured, but drawn through Christ.
In other cases, the old meaning was deliberately turned inside-out to bring further honor to God and more cause for the people to celebrate. In any case, the tradition of trees, lights and decorations has caught on everywhere, even among some non-Christian Asians who found that they really enjoy decorating for the season.
Advent is also when many families start making their own crche or manger scene.
Francis of Assisi is said to have popularized the crche. In Poland, there is a yearly competition on building the best one.
In one modern turn on the old tradition, a family does not make the crche all at once, but piece by piece, with each family member adding a piece, one a day in front of the family, telling the significance of each piece, until only the Christ Child and manger are missing.
Then the manger is added—but with no baby and no straw. The baby needs a bed of straw, so the children are asked to do good things for others. For each such deed, they would get a straw to add to the manger. Hopefully, by Christmas eve, there would be a bed of straw to lay the baby Jesus figurine into.
The Moravians created the Advent star, which symbolizes the star that led the Wise Men to Jesus, who is “the bright and morning star” (Revelation 22, 16). This star first started in the 1850s near the traditional Moravian home area of Herrnhut.