Advent (“L’Avent”, in French) is a time of waiting and preparing for Christmas. It lasts for four weeks, starting on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. ‘Advent’ derives from the Latin ‘adventus’ meaning “coming”. In Europe, November is the first month of the year when the weather is usually dark and cold.
The significance of Advent
The period of the Advent represents the hope of Christmas, when light conquers and expels darkness. The preparation for Christmas during the four weeks of Advent makes the sad days of November into an exciting time, particularly for children.
Children mark the progression of the four last weeks before Christmas by opening one door per day on an Advent calendar, while at home and in churches, Advent wreaths are lit.
The Advent calendar (le calendrier de l’Avent)
The Advent calendar has become a tradition in French homes today. They are mainly for children, for whom the countdown to Christmas is terribly exciting. Most Advent calendars that are found in shops in France have 24 windows, behind which are chocolates or small toys. The calendars themselves are usually large rectangular cards, displaying a Christmas scene or a German-looking medieval town!
The idea of the Advent calendar was created by German Lutherans in the 19th Century. The Austrian Landesmuseum dates the first printed Advent calendar to the beginner of the 20th century.
The Advent wreath (la couronne de l’Avent)
The Advent wreath is made up of fir and pine tree branches for the first Sunday of Advent. It is traditionally knotted with beautiful red bows and decorated with pine or fir cones. The Advent wreath is topped by four candles, symbolising the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. Each candle is lit on each of the Sundays before Christmas. The last candle to be lit announces that Christmas is very near. Sometimes, the wreath decoration can also include holly, mistletoe and Christmas ornaments.
The wreath can be placed on a table surrounded by the candles, or hung on the front door or windows of the house as a decoration.
The round form of the Advent wreath is believed to represent the sun and the promise that it will return after the winter season, while the dominant green colour symbolises life, present in the rebirth which occurs at the beginning of spring.
The number of candles also relates to the four seasons and the four cardinal points. In addition, they also refer to four famous moments throughout the Old Testament which announced the coming of the Messiah and His salvation:
- The first candle is the symbol of forgiveness granted to Adam and Eve.
- The second candle evokes the faith of Abraham and the patriarchs to whom God gave the Promised Land.
- The third candle is about the covenant with God, which causes King David to rejoice.
- The last candle refers to the teaching of the prophets who announced a reign of justice and peace.
For Christians, the wreath is also an image to remind us of the crown of thorns worn by Christ on the day of the Crucifixion.
Advent in France (l’Avent en France)
In many regions of France, Advent is celebrated through various different events.
In Lorraine, Alsace and in Nord-Pas-de-Calais, the celebrations of Saint-Nicolas take place around 6 December with big shows, street parades and fireworks. This tradition of 6 December is also maintained in other areas of Northern and Eastern Europe.
In Lyon, the Festival of Lights (Fête des Lumières) has become the biggest event in town, when its monuments, hills and river banks are illuminated for four days.
In Paris, the avenue des Champs-Elysées is traditionally lit up at the beginning of Advent, marking the start of a period of hectic Christmas shopping in the French capital.
In Provence, the Sainte Barbe (Saint Barbara) celebrations on 4 December are associated with an old Advent tradition.
Christmas preparations (les préparations de noël)
In France, the four weeks before Christmas is a period of great activity when everyone is focused on Christmas. The spirit of Christmas generosity is manifested by the purchase of gifts (les cadeaux), which are wrapped and hidden until 25 December. Crowds can be overwhelming in town centres, particularly in Paris near the Grands Magasins on Boulevard Haussmann. Aside from the gifts, Christmas shopping also includes buying ornaments and decorations, food and other items which will be useful for the big dinner on Christmas Eve.
Unlike in Sydney, Australia, the main shopping streets in French cities are brightly illuminated during the Advent period, without exception!
Christmas is a time enjoyed by young and old – but especially by children! Craft activities are a way to prepare children for Christmas and to help them discover the meaning of the celebration. They can get inspired by visits to Christmas markets, department stores and churches (for the Nativity scenes) and by making their own Christmas decorations, such as ornaments, tinsels, garlands, etc.
For Christians, the period of Advent is a time of meditation for what Christ accomplished 2,000 years ago. If Christmas is considered as the greatest Christian celebration, it is because His coming to our world heralds His death on a cross on Good Friday and His resurrection on Easter Sunday.