As we move from Thanksgiving into the Christmas season, it is easy for decorations, festivities and, sadly, commercialism to dominate our holiday. In reaction to this, many individuals and families look for ways to keep Jesus as the focus of their Christmas celebration.
For more than 10 years, our family has adopted the custom of celebrating Advent in an attempt to do just that. While Advent is not a common practice for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we have found that adapting it to our needs and weaving LDS scriptures and teachings into this old celebration has made it a powerful teaching tool for our children and a warm new family tradition for all of us.
Advent is an important tradition in Germany and Scandinavia as well as being part of the Christmas worship of many branches of Christianity, including the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican and Methodist churches. The name “Advent” comes from the Latin 'adventus,' meaning “coming, appearance, or presence.”
As early as Pope Gregory the Great (A.D. 590–604), Advent was established as a four-week preparatory period that anticipated the celebration of the birth, or advent, of Jesus Christ as the Babe of Bethlehem. But as observed today, Advent also celebrates Christ’s presence and importance in our lives now, and, just as importantly, looks forward to his future return in glory when he will reign as Lord of Lords and King of Kings.
Although some Christian communities celebrate it differently, a common feature of the Advent celebration is the Advent wreath, a simple or decorated evergreen wreath with four candles set in the circle and perhaps a fifth, white candle set in the middle.
Traditionally, three of the outer candles are purple, the color of royalty, celebrating the imminent coming of the Newborn King, while one of them is pink or rose-colored. On the first Sunday of Advent, which this year is Nov. 27, the first purple candle is lit. On each subsequent Sunday an additional candle is lit until Christmas Eve, when the central candle is list as well.
The lighting of the candles on each of the four Sunday leading up to Christmas Eve gives families an opportunity to gather for a Christmas devotional, taking a break from all of the other holiday festivities to focus on the true meaning of the season.
Although traditions differ regarding the symbolism of these candles, we have adopted one that sees these candles as representing the hope, love, joy and peace that came because of the birth of Jesus Christ, and which can continue to come into our lives today as we take the opportunity to turn to him during this joyful season.
Traditionally those who celebrate Advent gather, either in their churches or as families in their homes, to read scriptures from the Old Testament that anticipate the birth of Jesus. After reflecting upon these Advent themes they may then sing carols specifically written for the Advent season.
When our family gathers each Sunday of Advent, we use scriptures from the New Testament and the Book of Mormon. We take some time to discuss that Sunday’s focus and reflect on how it applies to us, after which we sing any of our favorite Christmas carols that fit the day’s theme.
After our family prayer, we turn to other, lighter traditions such as sharing a Christmas treat, opening that day’s pocket in our Advent calendar, and listening to Christmas music. Advent has thus become a cherished tradition in our family, one that helps us reflect on the true meaning of the season throughout the month.
In some traditions, the central candle lit on Christmas Eve represents the Advent theme of presence, indicating that just as Jehovah came to be with his people that first Christmas, he can be present in our lives now if we open our hearts to him. Because we use many Book of Mormon passages in our Advent celebration, we have come to use that fifth candle for a new Advent theme, that of Salvation. This is because every prophecy of the coming of Jesus in the Book of Mormon is also tightly linked to why the Son of God came into the world — to suffer, die, and rise again for us all.
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Eric D. Huntsman is an associate professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University and is the author of "Good Tidings of Great Joy: An Advent Celebration of the Savior's Birth" published by Deseret Book.