A Meaningful Moment This Christmas
*gentle tap on shoulder*
Christmas is coming.
OK, so it’s not really a secret. Target and Home Depot scooped me a few weeks ago (yes, before Halloween). But as Christmas does its best to sneak up on us, it’s worth pausing to consider this pre-Christmas season.
There’s a word for the pre-Christmas season, by the way. It’s called “Advent,” a period of four weeks leading up to Christmas.
What I meant to say was, Advent is a period of 25 days leading up to Christmas.
Hold on. Four weeks or 25 days—which is it? And, honestly, what difference does it make?
Let me give away the punchline here at the outset: I think both are great. The entire point of the Advent season is to anticipate the coming of Jesus. Most of us want to do that. We want to create a meaningful moment in our home, centering the holiday on Jesus. But it’s easy to miss in the Christmas blitz.
So if you’re looking to create a meaningful moment in your home this Christmas—to anticipate Jesus this Advent—I think I can help.
Joy in the Waiting
Christmas has always been my favorite holiday. As a kid, a huge chunk of that was, almost certainly, a result of my rampant consumerism. Like most American kids, I grew up with the firm (but unspoken) conviction that more stuff meant more joy.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve begun to learn what Jesus meant when he said, “Life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15 NIV). Consumerism doesn’t lead to contentment.
(I’m still learning, by the way.)
But it’s too simple to chalk all of my Christmas excitement up to greed. Something else was going on in that boyhood heart of mine.
When it comes to Christmas, what unites the heart of 7-year-old Chris to that of 37-year-old Chris is the feeling of anticipation—that unique experience of joy in the present which is caused simply by looking to joy in the future.
For all the ways we can get Christmas wrong, anticipation is the one way most of us tend to get Christmas right. Christmas is not just one day. It is the culmination of a season of joyful waiting, what Christians for centuries have called “Advent.”
Advent—literally “the coming”—describes the season leading up to Christmas, in which we prepare our hearts to celebrate Jesus coming into the world. In Advent, we mirror the eager waiting of the Old Testament people of God, who looked forward to Jesus’ birth. And we join with believers throughout the centuries in looking ahead to Jesus’ second coming, that moment when he will usher in complete justice and perfect peace.
So how exactly does Advent work? Let’s check out Option 1.
Option 1: Four Sundays, a Wreath, and Colorful Candles!
I grew up doing Advent over the course of four weeks. Every December (and sometimes beginning slightly before December) our family would place an Advent wreath on the dining room table. Around the wreath were four candles—three purple and one pink—representing peace, hope, joy, and love. Every Sunday leading up to Christmas, we would read a passage and light one more candle. And on Christmas Eve, we’d like the large, white, “Christ Candle” in the center of the wreath.
My family didn’t invent this, of course. The weekly rhythm of the wreath-and-candle combination dates back to 16th-century Germany. The wreath provided a gathering point for the candles, which were lighted every week to help families anticipate Christmas Day.
I did some digging recently and learned that the color of the candles varies throughout church traditions. Purple was the color of Advent in the Western church from the 13th century onward, which is why many Advent candles are purple. But purple isn’t universal. Many churches today use blue, or white, or red.
And when it comes to the meaning of these candles, it’s a bit of a free-for-all. Like I mentioned, I grew up with love, hope, joy, and peace. But I’ve also read about the candles symbolizing the four stages of human history—creation, incarnation, redemption, restoration.
Or that they represent key moments in the biblical narrative—Adam, Abraham, David, the prophets.
Or Israel, the prophets, John the Baptist, and Mary.
Or Isaiah, Bethlehem, the shepherds, and the angels.
Despite this wild, Wild West of interpretation, the core element of the wreath remains the same—anticipation. The wreath becomes a beautiful centerpiece for the home, drawing people toward it. The candles provide a tangible activity, which is both beautiful and fun. And all of it points forward to the celebration of Jesus at the end of the season.
We’ll get back to the idea of a centerpiece in a minute. But before we do, let’s take a quick jaunt over to Option 2 so I can introduce you to one of my new favorite pastors, Johann Hinrich Wichern.
Option 2: 25 Days, a Calendar, and Probably Some Candy!
Not everyone has experienced the four-weeks-style of Advent. But just about all of us know the contours of the 25-day variety. Advent calendars may not be quite as common as Christmas trees, but they’re close. Most of them are pretty simple: Your calendar has 25 small flaps or doors, numbered from “1” to “25.” Every day, you open one more door, revealing a message or a prize. Chocolates, small toys, that kind of thing.
In the 21st-century United States, we’ve turned Advent calendars into a weird kind of niche market. I’ve seen Advent calendars with various cheeses—“Celebrate Cheeses This Christmas.” I’ve seen Advent calendars themed by favorite pets—the “Advent Catendar.”
I wish I were making those up.
Not that there needs to be a ridiculous pun involved. Do a quick Google search and you’ll find (as I just did) Advent calendars containing wine, dog treats, Legos, or candies from Dolly Parton.
With this strange array of choices, you’d be forgiven for assuming the 25-day Advent calendar is a pretty recent invention, more about capitalism than Jesus. But it turns out the 25-day countdown actually dates back to 1839.
In that year, a German pastor named Johann Hinrich Wichern decided to take his Advent wreath and spruce it up a bit (see what I did there?) for the kids in his congregation. He knew kids thrived off of daily rhythms. So what did he do?
He took his wreath and dropped in 25 candles—one for each day.
The first Advent calendars started popping up not long after Wichern’s innovation. It’s not hard to imagine why. After all, if the goal of Advent is to help people anticipate the birth of Jesus, what better way to do that than with a countdown? Especially if you’ve got kids involved. Add in some tangible surprises—candies, cards … yes, even cheeses—and you’ve got a perfect environment for Christmas anticipation.
Anticipate Jesus This Christmas
So which one is better—four weeks or 25 days? Wreaths or calendars? The 16th-century Germans or 19th-century Pastor Wichern?
Honestly, either one.
Remember, the entire point of Advent is to anticipate the coming of Jesus. Your family can do that over the course of four Sundays. You can do it over the span of 25 days. The important thing is that you do it.
Ask yourself: How can I cultivate my heart this Christmas to anticipate Jesus’ birth, and not just presents? What can I do with those in my home to anticipate Jesus? Create your own Advent rhythm. Or join up with someone else’s Advent rhythm—perhaps your church’s or your denomination’s. Or join my family in using Advent Blocks, a resource I wrote and helped create.
Then, once you’ve got your plan, go and do it.
This Christmas, I’m praying that you’ll taste the anticipation of Advent. That you’ll join with believers across the world and across the centuries, experiencing joy in the present while you look to God’s sure and certain joy in the future.