The True Meaning of Advent

People typically have chocolate advent calendars which they open every day in December

The arrival of December yesterday marked the beginning of the Christian period of Advent.

While many celebrate it with a chocolate-filled advent calendar they have, it is, in fact, aimed at helping people prepare themselves for Christmas, the celebration of the incarnation, when God came to earth as Jesus.

Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, not always on the First of December, as many people think, and ends with Christmas Day itself.

The Very Revd Dr Derek Browning, Minister at Morningside Parish Church of Scotland in Edinburgh, said: “Traditionally it is a period for reflection and wonder.”

Speaking of the traditions in his church, the Minister said: “As part of the Advent season I have developed a short, all-age service on a Friday evening, called the Service of Light. It was originally a Christingle service but fire and child safety precautions have meant we’ve gone from lighting candles to lighting electric torches.

“The symbolism of light coming into the world is a key one for Advent and Christmas, and based on a Bible passage which talks of people living in great darkness seeing a great light, the coming of Jesus. It also refers to one of the descriptions of Jesus as the light of the world.”

The Minister added: “Another key tradition on the first Sunday of Advent is singing the hymn, ‘O come, o come Emmanuel’ (you can find the words online). The ancient hymn is full of Bible symbolism about the meaning of Who Jesus is and what He represents in the Christian faith tradition.”

The term ‘advent’ comes from the Latin word adventus, meaning “coming”.

Another tradition within the Church of Scotland is to mark Advent by the making of the Advent crown, which holds three purple, one white and one pink candle. These represent hope, peace, joy and love.

The traditional advent crown with the five candles, lit by a child on the appropriate Sunday in the run-up to Christmas. Photo  by grassrootsgroundshell

The Minister highlighted that other branches of Christianity may have other practices.

However, the religious background of Advent is arguably not understood by many, as non-religious people still participate in the tradition of advent calendars.

Advent calendars can now be found every December, not just with chocolate, but also with alcohol, such as wine, gin and whiskey, cheese, healthy food options, beauty products and even toy options for children.


James Cooper, from whychristmas?.com said: “Sadly, I don’t think many people do now understand the history of Advent.

“It used to be that Advent was a much quieter, and often religious, time running up to Christmas and then the ’12 Days of Christmas’ was the time for partying and eating. But we’ve now really moved most of the parties, etc. back into Advent.

“I think it’s a real shame that we’ve lost so much of the meaning of Advent. I’m a Christian and I have an Advent Candle which I’ll lit every day during Advent.”

Minister Browning said: “It has become increasingly difficult to hold onto ‘Christmas’ and maintain the period of Advent and waiting, wondering and longing. Commercial practices (including the recent US phenomenon of ‘Black Friday), push consumerism relentlessly.

“Advertising Christmas goods in September and October also lessen the impact of Advent and Christmas by turning it into a shopping spree where people may often buy things they don’t need with money they don’t have.

“Consumerism has attempted to fill the aching void in the lives of many people where an active faith would once be found. In a world that has no patience and lost the ability to wait, we have sacrificed the mystery of wonder for immediate gratification.”

For more information on the history of Advent, you can access James’ blog here.