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A time of preparation...

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Emily Emily | 16:31 UK time, Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Hi, this is my first time writing on this blog. I'm a Broadcast Assistant on the BBC Learning English website.

I thought I'd write about Advent, the time of preparation for Christmas in the Christian Church.

Advent starts on the 4th Sunday before Christmas. This year it started on Sunday 27 November. Many churches have Advent Wreaths with candles in, one for each week, plus one for Christmas day. An Advent Wreath is made by twisting the leaves and stems of evergreen plants into a ring shape. Some people also use ribbons, flowers, fruit and twigs to add to the leaves. Four candles - one for each week of Advent - sit around the circle of the wreath; three purple and one rose (pink), and a white candle can also sit in the middle of the wreath to be lit on Christmas Day.

My friend Angela has sent me a picture of her family wreath, which is made using five candles, holly and ivy leaves and red berries. Sometimes pine branches are used too.

A family Advent Wreath

Angela's Advent Wreath has five candles with holly and other leaves around it

Purple is the colour used in the Catholic Church to symbolise a time of waiting or preparation. It is used in Advent (four weeks leading up to Christmas) and Lent (six weeks leading up to Easter). So the purple candles are lit on three of the four Sundays of Advent. The rose candle is lit on the third Sunday of Advent, because it is 'Gaudete Sunday', a day to rejoice that Christmas - and the birth of Jesus Christ - has nearly arrived.

I have read that the tradition might have been started by a Protestant pastor in Germany during the 19th century. He made a circle out of wood and placed 19 small candles and 4 big candles around it. Every weekday during Advent one of the small candles was lit and every Sunday one of the big candles was lit, to symbolise the time leading up to Christmas.

Do you celebrate Advent in your country? What special traditions do you have for the beginning of Advent? Do you light an Advent Wreath in your church or in your home?
Or perhaps you have an Advent calendar?

If you are not a Christian, what other traditions do you have at this time of year? I'd like to hear about Diwali, which was celebrated recently, and Hanukah, which is coming up soon. Please share your winter festival traditions with me by commenting on this blog.

I look forward to hearing from you.


Advent - a time of preparation for Christians, leading up to Christmas
Advent Wreath - a ring of leaves, flowers, twigs, with five candles, one for each week of Advent and one for Christmas Day.
Evergreen plants - plants and trees which have leaves all year round
Christmas Day - the day Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ (25 December in the UK)
Holly - a bush with spiky leaves, which has red berries in the winter
Ivy - a trailing plant with green and white patterned leaves
Pine - an evergreen tree with green leaves that look like needles
Tradition - the passing on of cultural practices from generation to generation
Symbolise - to represent something using a symbol or image


  • Comment number 1.

    Emily - what an interesting blog post! My mother uses white candles in her wreath - I think because she's Protestant instead of Catholic. I hope you cover more religious festivals soon. It's always interesting to read about religious traditions and how they arose, especially because they're so interwoven with our everyday lives. What about advent calendars, for example?

  • Comment number 2.


    It is indeed an interesting blog !

  • Comment number 3.

    Hi Emily,

    It's nice to meet you! First of all, I would like to thank you for this blog. There are a lot of details and it was very interesting to see how preparations for Christmas occur in other countries. Now I’d like to tell about Russian Christmas traditions.

    I should say that period of Advent in Orthodox Church is a little bit longer and takes 40 days. That means it starts on the same date every year (28th November). All these days you have to observe a fast (no milk, no meat or eggs). Also you can’t have fun and so on. I think it doesn’t have to be explained what means ‘to observe a fast’.

    What about external preparations, wreathes are not spread widely here. Friendly speaking, I met them may be once or twice and I sure, that their owners didn’t know about their symbolism. And definitely they didn’t care about candles’ colors. But you can meet a Christmas tree in almost every house in New Year Eve. Usually, all presents are put under this tree before party and are opened only on the first day of new year. That’s why we don’t use socks. The second reason is that we don’t have fireplace usually in our buildings.

    So, orthodox Christians observe their fast without any visible preparations (except of loosing a weight, of course). And the rest people also don’t do anything saying that Christmas and New Year party are coming soon yet. May be it will surprise you, but there’s still no snow around here (I live in Saint-Petersburg). Now looking around, you don’t see a winter, a Christmas, and New Year Eve. But everything is going to change soon, I hope.

    Best wishes,
    Ilya from non-snow Russia

  • Comment number 4.

    Hi Emily,

    what an amazing post! I haven't known that colors of candles have some special meaning. We have very similar traditions in The Czech Republic as you. I made one Advert Wreath at home. It isn't as nice as Advert Wreath from professional but hand made and it's more importat for me.

  • Comment number 5.

    Hi Emily
    Christmas isn’t such a popular and considerable holyday in Russia as in Europe. The point is that it follows soon after a New Year which is more important. Orthodoxy celebrates its holydays two weeks later than Catholicism, so Orthodox Christmas is on January the seventh. Christmas traditions are quite weak in modern Russia. As far as I can gather unpopularity could be explained by two reasons. The first is that Russians are violently tired to celebrate something else after 6 days of New Years Parties. And the second is that Orthodox Church considers The Easter as the most important. Eventually a number of common Russians drink to the glory of God at Christmas and do not anything about traditions.:)
    In time of Winter Holydays we can see a mixture of different traditions like orthodox, catholic and buddhist. So we can watch a show-mix with Santa Claus, Snegurochka (a person of Russian mythology), dragon (or tiger or monkey or… according Chinese calendar). In this band Christ looks quite strange person.
    As for me, I don’t like religious, ethnical, political, national, state corporative festivals. Some traditions look curiously but not more. I think it could be more valid to celebrate a day of the first grass appearing or day of Moon or something else that is beyond religious, race, ideological, political identity.

  • Comment number 6.

    Hello Emily

    Glad to see your first post on this blog with pleasant theme. I'm not so religious to know all detail of preparation for the Christmas, i know about them superficially. In Georgia not every one pay attention to the religious rules meticulously. The Orthodox church celebrate this event on the 7th of January. Before this we have fast, even for New Year for 31 night religiously you must not eat non fasting meal and this restriction taken off only beginning from Christmas. For the Christmas night we must lit the candle (honey candle) and pray for our loved people. At home must be evergreen tree's branch and also if we go to the neighbors you must bring to them such a branch too. Every family have own customs how to meet Christmas. In Georgia this customs are different depending on which part of Georgia you are.

    Sofiko Georgia

  • Comment number 7.

    Hello Emily.
    I'm not a religius person, but I was brought up according with Catholic Church and this is the majority religion in my country. I indeed get married in a church, but I broke the tradition and I didn't baptized my children.
    Anyway, ther're Catholic traditions followed by mostly people. We don´t have Advent Wreats. I remember, vaghely, I had once an Advent Calend with chocolates when I was a child. Now, I see them in the supermarkets, but it isn't a widespread habit.
    We have a Christmas Tree because of the Anglo-Saxon influence, but dthe authentic tradition of my country is the Nativity scene. Both, Chritsmas Tree and Nativity Scene, are overlapped in December, usually at the beginning of the month. We use another Christmas decorations such, possibly, Advent Wreath but without meand.
    I enjoyed your post and I'm grateful to Victor and to Ilia for showing Russian Christmas. Have a good time.

  • Comment number 8.

    Hello Emily.
    In Spain, most people are Catholic and the most common Christmas tradition is the Nativity scene.
    Family usually meet together at Christmas holiday and there are some important days, on Christmas Eve when all family have dinner, New Year's Eve when people have a party with their friends and the Night of the three wise men when children receive gifts.

  • Comment number 9.

    Hi Emily,

    I have to write a comment for your first post : indeed we have the same name :)
    I am French, so normally, it spells E M I L I E :)
    It is a topicality post you wrote, however I can't comment , because I am not a religious person. I knew this tradition, because, when I was in college, my German teacher has came with this traditional Advent Wreath !

    I have a tradition since I was young, my mother bought me a Chocolate Advent Calender :) Furthermore, we have a Christmas tree in house!

    I hope you come back soon !
    Emilie, from France

  • Comment number 10.

    Hello. Emily.

    i fully enjoyed reading your post. thanks. It is very interesting. However it is a wee bit hard to understand Advent because as I am Japanese, the culture of Christian is not common here. Although I have studied for 2 years in Ireland but I think It is still not easy to get the Christian cultures well. hahaha.
    In Japan, there are only few Christians here I guess. however we like celebrating Xmas and holding Xmas parties. Ohh, yes I have to tell you about the difference between Japanese and Christians. i think you Christians spend time at Xmas with your family and all shops are closed but i think in Japan at Xmas time, it is the time for couples. Couples have a romantic time at Xmas and for stuffs in restaurants and bars it is very busy time. I think NO one wants to close their shops at Xmas time. When i was in Ireland, i felt a bit weird because i could not go out anywhere but i like both situations at Xmas. ^^

    Thanks your good post.

  • Comment number 11.

    Hello everybody. Yes, very interesting this section of the blog about Advent tradition. I did not know about the Protestant origin. In my country (Italy) it is very common to light candles during the Advent period. Also the Avent Calendar is very popular especially among children. Each day you open the small "window" and you can discover a message, a symbol or an image that symbolises something special. At school children usually are asked to make one calendar by themselves using coloured papers and their imagination for finding out the best images.

  • Comment number 12.

    Hi Emily and everybody else,
    In Austria we also have Advent Wreaths - in fact, I think every family has one, and the colours of the candles CAN be the ones you mentioned, but they can also be some other colour - fashion plays a role even here. I have never seen an Advent Wreath with 5 candles though. It's four candles throughout in Austria I dare say.

    Advent Calendars are very popular around here too. Some have windows that reveal Christmassy pictures and some have chocolates inside. But there are other traditions too: For instance, on 4 Dec., St. Barbara's day, we cut twigs from a cherry tree and put them in a vase in the house. The buds are supposed to open by Christmas, and if they do, you may expect to get married during the following year -or at least to have any amount of luck. Religious traditions and superstitions are often very closely interwoven, aren't they?

    Well, then there is a very nice day for children at the beginning of Advent: St. Nicholas' day is celebrated on 6 Dec. Children put their shoes on the windowsill on the eve of that day, and the next morning they find their shoes filled with fruit and nuts and sweets. Some fathers even dress up like bishops and act out St. Nicholas for their children, mentioning the instances when they have been particularly good and speaking a word of reproach if the children have not been so good. Thank God, nowadays parents tend to keep "Krampuses" out of the house. Those frightening, mask-wearing figures have been traditional companions of St. Nicholas, but today you can mainly see them in Krampus parades (often called "Perchtenlauf") where they display their costumes and masks, always frightening but also quite artful in fact. If you watch such a parade, you'd better watch out! The participants in their terrifying costumes will invariably scatter into the crowd of onlookers and try to whip their birches at people's legs.

    We usually don't put up and decorate a Christmas tree in our homes until the 23 or 24 December. It's phantastic when the smell of the fresh fir tree fills the house and mixes with the smell of Christmas cookies, which are baked in almost every family in my country. On Christmas eve we put up a nativity scene, we place presents under the tree, light the candles on the tree, sing songs remembering the birth of Jesus Christ, and open the presents. By the way, in Austria we say that the presents are brought by "Christkind", which I used to imagine to be sort of an angel-like figure, but who could never be seen, no matter how hard I tried...

    Now, with all those smells and candle lights and expectations Advent, leading up to Christmas, is a time that appeals particularly to our emotions, I think. And although I must confess I like this time a lot, I also sympathise with Victor's view: Political or religious celebrations often hold a potential for chauvinism, for placing oneself above others, for aggression even, and insofar the first green leaves or buds opening make much better occasions for celebrating.

    Elisabeth (Austria)

  • Comment number 13.

    Hi Emily ,
    First of all i would like to thank you for posting an article with many informations. It was worthy to read the article as i enjoyed it . I do not practise christianity though. Since i have been living in Canberra, Australia for a while, it would be my second time to come up with christmas celebration. I enjoyed first christmas here with my friends. There was christmas trees, songs, chocolates and night party at our living place. In addition, we went out to observe the lighting in the streets. I saw the advent wreath before but obviously i did not know the reason of using different candle colours with twisting tree leaves and stems forming a ring shape. Its always pleasure to know the explanation of our surrounding things which we alwasys come up with although we dont know the meaning of it.
    Best wishes...

  • Comment number 14.

    Hi Emily. This post is pretty interesting.
    I'm a quite religious catholic from Spain. In my country, Advent is only popular to people who attend Mass, because it's a liturgical time; I would say that Advent hasn't been traditional here in popular culture and local folklore as it is in central Europe, although Advent calendars have increasingly become common as a pre-Christmas present.
    Advent wreaths were not common inside the churches in Spain, but in recent years have widespread absolutely, in fact now they can be found in almost every church and every sunday, during the Mass, one of the remaining candles is lit.
    So I think Advent will be well-known in Spain in the near future!


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