A Brief History of Advent

What started as a fasting holiday is now best known for its candy-filled calendars.

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Thought Christmas colors were red and green? Try purple. That’s the official church color for Advent, the four-week holiday leading up to the Feast of the Nativity, also known as Christmas. Advent also kicks off Western Christianity’s New Year, and this week the church calendar flipped on the earliest possible date, November 27.

While Advent is perhaps best known today for calendars with chocolate treats behind little doors, its rich history stretches back more than 1600 years. Much like Lent readies the church for Christ’s Easter resurrection, Advent has long prepared Christians to celebrate the coming of God to Earth — leading to classic carols like “O Come O Come Emmanuel” and “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus.” Originally, Christians fasted and prayed during this season to prepare for the “Christ-mass.” But the timing of Advent was not routine until after Roman Emperor Constantine commemorated December 25 as Christ’s birthday during the fourth century. (The Eastern Church follows a different calendar, celebrating Christ’s birth on January 7.)

(PHOTOS: Visions of the Nativity)

Today, fasting has gone out of vogue for much of the Western church, but each of the four weeks leading up to Christmas continues to have a special meaning. Hope, peace, joy, and love are the most common themes. Every Sunday, a new advent candle is lit on an evergreen wreath to symbolize God’s everlasting love, and worshippers pray and recite scriptures that align with the week’s focus. Liturgies vary slightly, but the essence is shared. “With Christians around the world, we use this light to help us prepare our hearts and minds for the coming of God’s Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ,” recite many Presbyterian churches as they light a new candle. Royal purple has been the candle color since the late 13th century to symbolize Christ, the coming King. On the third Sunday, a pink candle is often used to remember Mary. A final fifth candle, usually white to symbolize Christ’s purity, is lit for the night Christ was born.

Advent calendars are actually quite similar. They first emerged in the mid-1800s as another tool to focus on the reason for the season. Before paper became readily available, many families used small candles or even blocks to mark each day approaching Christmas. Later, calendar doors opened to Bible verses that tell the Christmas story.

Of course now you can buy all types of Advent calendars, with themes from Star Wars to Obama’s family to yes, even beer bottles. After all, Advent is about celebrating, right?

MORE: Introducing the $1 Million Advent Calendar

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