A history of ChristmasAdvent
November 29, 2023
December is almost upon us. In my home, the days immediately preceding the final month of the year prompt a barrage of questions from my kids about when we will be handing out the Advent calendars for this year. When I was young, I did the same thing. My mother was a German immigrant and always got the special calendars in the mail from her family in Europe. Every day had a different chocolate treat hidden behind a little door. As a child, I never wondered what Advent was. I always focused on the annual traditions, never digging any deeper. This raises an interesting question: Where did Advent come from? Why do we celebrate it at all?
With the first Sunday of Advent taking place this week, I have already begun spotting internet articles claiming that the Advent season originated with pagan holidays that were simply “:co-opted” by the church. Last year, I researched and wrote a series of articles on Christmas, debunking claims that the holiday was simply stolen from ancient pagan custom and explaining how it all started. This year, I decided to revisit the practice and look deeper into Advent.
Unlike the December date for Christmas, Christmas trees, and other well-established fixtures of the holiday season, Advent is a far more overtly religious practice. Though some companies have begun putting out novelty Advent calendars with everything from daily liquor samples, to Lego, to cheeses of the world; it remains primarily a religious calendar feature with little commercialization. Today, Advent covers the four Sundays preceding Christmas. Though in the earlier days of the faith, it went on for six weeks.
Despite the flurry of articles that sound historically authoritative asserting that Advent has pagan origins, the claims rest on flimsy historic evidence and are likely the opposite of the historic truth. The majority of these theories date back to the 19th century, when it was en vogue to make spurious claims about church history based on non-existent sources and often counter the historic fact. When it comes to Christmas, the claim that December 25th was chosen for the birth of Christ because it was the winter solstice, and the pagan holiday for Sol Invictus. The Advent season is rolled into that claim by simply saying that pagans spent weeks beforehand preparing themselves for the holiday. However, this is very much in contrast to how pagan religions were observed. Further, in last year’s articles, I demonstrated using ancient sources that the December 25th date for Christmas predated the Roman adoption of Sol Invictus. In fact, the pagan holiday may have been placed on top of the Christian holiday intentionally to gain traction riding the coattails of the rapidly growing church’s momentum. In reality, Advent reflects the ancient Christian practice of spiritual preparation for major events and observations, which in turn, look very similar to Jewish practices of the time.
So, what is Advent? The word ‘advent’ is from the Latin word, Adventus, which means “arrival.” Advent has historically been the start of the church calendar year. It is unclear when the season was first observed. There are hints at earlier observation in the writing and sermons of various figures, but the first time it is clearly mentioned and added to the church liturgical calendar was in 480 AD. It is important to note that this was around 150 years after the official adoption of a church calendar. The observation of Christmas on December 25th long predated that calendar. In the same way, it is entirely possible that observing the Advent season precedes its addition to the church calendar year. The adoption may have been a product of the church officially recognizing the existing practice.
In 480 AD, the second book of the History of the Franks refers to three times a week fasts decreed by St. Perpetuus from the feast of Saint Martin until Christmas. The fasts took place on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. The feast of Saint Martin lands on the Sunday closest to November 11th. This means that Advent was originally around 40 days (6 weeks) of repentance and spiritual preparation anticipating the feast of Christmas. For Christians, this should sound a lot like the season of Lent, which is the 40 days of fasting and preparation that precedes Easter. It was
originally a less intense version of the Lenten fast. Both were intended as a time of getting your heart ready for recognizing a major event in the life of Christ.
Over time, the Advent fast was shortened in the Western church to the 4 weeks preceding Christmas. In addition, as the practice of fasting waned throughout the western church, the practice of fasting during Advent also became less common before it was eliminated altogether.
In some parts of the church, Advent fasting and repentance was a time of preparation for baptism, which would be an additional parallel to the observation of Lent. Historically, Lent was used for preparing converts for their baptism at Easter. In this case, baptisms were meant to take place on the celebration of Epiphany, 12 days after Christmas. Incidentally, this is what the “12 days of Christmas” refers to.
Regardless of where it came from or how we practice Advent, there is tremendous value in preparing ourselves mentally and spiritually for celebrating the birth of Jesus. This is especially true in our day and age. Christmas has increasingly become a time of stress, buying last minute gifts, fighting on the internet about Merry Christmas vs Happy Holidays, and avoiding Mariah Carey’s “All I want for Christmas is You”. Finding time in the middle of the chaos to search our hearts, worship, confess our sins, and celebrating the incarnation of Jesus can feel all but impossible. You don’t need to do this through fasting, though the practice has tremendous spiritual benefits. You can do this by setting aside time daily for times of study, reflection, and prayer. There are tons of Advent devotional books available in both print and ebook formats. I am preparing 4 weeks of devotionals for my church and will happily share them with anyone interested in spiritual preparation before Christmas. Email me at email@example.com or text me at 406-399-3803 to get a copy.