Advent Basics: When? What? Colors?

Several years ago, I wrote a series of blog posts on Advent. Later, I gathered these posts together and put up on my blog an article called: What is Advent? An Introduction to Advent. This year, I’ve decided to update that article, putting some excerpts on the main page of my blog. You can read them here. Or, if you want the whole article, you can click over to it.

I believe that Advent can enrich both your celebration of Christmas and your relationship with God. Yet, for many, Advent is unfamiliar. My goal in writing about Advent is to explain some basics so that you might choose to celebrate it, if you wish.

When is Advent?

Advent is a season in the Christian year that lasts for about four weeks. It begins four Sundays before Christmas and ends on Christmas Eve, thus there is some variation in its length. (In 2017, Advent begins on Sunday, December 3.) If you’re unfamiliar with the idea of Christian seasons, you might find helpful a series I’ve written called: Introduction to the Christian Year. (I should mention that Eastern Orthodox Christians do not recognize Advent per se, but have a longer season that is rather like Advent. Their Nativity Fast begins in the middle of November and is a season for repentance and abstinence.)

In our secular American celebration of Christmas, the Christmas season (or holiday season, ugh) begins in the weeks prior to Christmas Day. Generally, this season starts in early December, though retailers have a bad habit of beginning Christmas in November (or even October). In my rule book, you shouldn’t listen to Christmas music or decorate for Christmas until after you’ve finished the Thanksgiving turkey . . . at the earliest. Of course outside of my immediate family, nobody follows my rules . . . especially retailers.

So, Advent overlaps with what is usually thought of in American culture as the Christmas season. But its beginning and ending are well defined, and its themes are quite a bit different from what is commonly associated with secular Christmas celebrations.

What is Advent?

Advent calendar photo from Pixaby, Creative Commons License
Advent calendar photo from Pixabay, Creative Commons License

The Christian season of Christmas actually begins on Christmas Eve and lasts for twelve days, ending on January 6. (No, the twelve-day season of Christmas did not start with the song. It was the other way around.) The time before Christmas is Advent, a season of preparation for Christmas. Christians prepare for celebrating the birth of Jesus by remembering the longing of the Jews for a Messiah. In Advent, we’re reminded of how much we ourselves also need a Savior, and we look forward to our Savior’s second coming even as we prepare to celebrate his first coming at Christmas. The word “Advent” comes from the Latin word adventus, which means “coming” or “visit.” In the season with this name, we keep in mind both “advents” of Christ, the first in Bethlehem and the second yet to come.

I loved Christmas when I was young, partly because it celebrated the birth of Jesus, but mostly because it was a giant party in which I received lots of presents. In a sense, the Christian observance is a bit like my boyhood Advent calendars, though it has a much more serious purpose. It’s meant to get us ready, not for a present-opening party, but for a transformational celebration of the birth of Jesus.

What Colors Are Used in Advent?

My Advent wreath
My Advent wreath

There are a few other things about Advent, besides its themes, that you might find odd if you’re unfamiliar with the season. The strangest might be the Advent color scheme. We associate Christmas and the weeks leading up to it with typical Christmas colors: red, green, white, silver, and gold. Advent, on the other hand, features purple (or dark blue) and pink. (As far as I know, purple is the original color of Advent. But many Christians prefer to save purple for Lent, using dark blue for Advent.) The purple/blue color signifies seriousness, repentance, and royalty. Pink points to the minor theme of Advent, which is joy. For many observers of Advent, the first, second, and fourth Sundays of Advent are “purple/blue” Sundays. Only the third is a “pink” Sunday. The pink, joyful color reminds us that, even as Advent helps us get in touch with our sober yearning for God to come to us, we know that he did in fact come in the person of Jesus.

Thus, our major-theme of waiting has a grace note of joy mixed in. If you’ve seen a traditionally-colored Advent wreath, you will recognize the purple and pink colors of this season (with the central, white, Christ-candle for Christmas Eve/Day). But if you’re unfamiliar with Advent and happen to attend a church service in early December in a church that recognizes Advent, you might be startled to see lots of purple, a bit of pink, and no red or green. (Many churches combine the colors of Advent and Christmas, however, so visitors won’t be completely perplexed. Advent purists don’t approve of such a mix, but I think we need to be gracious in our response to the Advent traditions of others.)

I’ll have more to say about Advent and its growing popularity tomorrow.

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