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First Sunday Advent

The Advent season marks the beginning of the Christian year in western Christianity. Its length varies from 22 to 28 days, beginning on the Sunday nearest St Andrew’s Day and encompassing the next three Sundays, ending on Christmas Day.

Advent wreaths are a popular way to mark the Advent season.

©iStockphoto.com/Annette Wiechmann

What do people do?

In the Roman Catholic Church and in some Anglican communities the third Sunday is called Gaudete Sunday, from the first word of the introit (psalm or antiphon) “Rejoice”. In some churches rose-colored vestments may replace the purple and flowers may be placed on the altar. In many eastern Christian churches, the church year begins in September 1 so Advent begins at a different time to when it starts in the western churches. The Eastern equivalent of Advent is called the Nativity Fast, which runs for 40 days. It is sometimes called Philip’s Fast, or the Philippian Fast, and begins on the day following the Feast of St Philip the Apostle (November 14).

Advent around the world is usually associated with the Advent calendars that parents give their children to help them count the days until Christmas. Preparation for Christmas is an important theme for Advent, particularly at the beginning. It is a time when the Christmas menu is planned, gifts are bought or made, then wrapped, carols are sung, Christmas cards are sent and houses are decorated with Christmas-themed lights and other decorations. Advent customs in some European countries, such as Germany, include lighting candles and hanging special Advent wreaths.

Public life

The first Sunday of Advent is not a nationwide public holiday in countries such as Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. However, churches may be busy on this day, as are families who use the beginning of Advent as a time to prepare for the Christmas season.

Background

It is uncertain as to when exactly the celebration of Advent was first introduced in the Christian church. Some sources say that Advent began on November 11 (St Martin's Day) at some time in the fifth century in the form of a six-week fast leading to Christmas. Advent was reduced to its current length at some stage in the sixth century and the fasting was later no longer observed.

It was customary, although no longer practiced, for poor women to carry “Advent images”, which were two dolls dressed to represent Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary, in the northern parts of England. Those who saw the dolls were expected to give a donation in form of money and bad luck was believed to occur to those who were not visited by the doll-bearers before Christmas Eve.

Advent is originally a time to reflect and prepare for Christmas similarly to how Lent is in preparation for Easter. Advent has sometimes been referred to as the Winter Lent.  In recent times the restrictions that Advent brings to Christians have become more relaxed.

Symbols

Purple is historically the main color used for Advent because it reflects penitence, fasting, and the color of royalty to welcome the Advent of the king (Jesus Christ). The focus of the entire season is the celebration of the birth of Jesus the Christ in his first Advent, and the anticipation of the return of Christ the King in his second Advent. Some churches use other colors in recent times. For example, some churches mark the third Sunday of Advent with pink or rose, colors that represent joy. Many Protestant churches use blue to distinguish the Season of Advent from Lent.

Advent wreaths are symbolic of Advent in some countries. They are usually made of fir and decorated with gold and silver ribbons or scarlet woolen threads. Lit wreaths may be displayed on the table where family and friends sit while singing carols and preparing handmade gifts.

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