Celebrating Advent

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(This is an excerpt from the chapter "Son of David" from the book Good Tidings of Great Joy.)

As part of preparing for Christmas, Christians from some backgrounds observe a custom called Advent. This observance takes its name from the Latin adventus, which means “coming” or “appearance.” As such, Advent is a way that some choose to celebrate the coming of Jesus into the world at his birth, to focus on his presence in their lives now, and to look forward to his glorious return in the future. Whether gathered in church or at home, those who observe Advent today use the Sundays leading up to Christmas to prepare themselves through scriptures, music, and other traditions. While Advent is not a regular part of Latter-day Saint practice, individual families, such as ours, have found that incorporating some aspects of it into their own traditions at home can be a wonderful way to keep the Christmas season Christ-centered.

Advent was originally a solemn, preparatory period before newly converted Christians were baptized on January 6. That day was selected for such baptisms because it was the day, particularly in the East, that commemorated Jesus’ own baptism. Perhaps because of that date’s proximity to Christmas, Pope Gregory the Great (a.d. 590–604) later established Advent as a period of preparation anticipating the Feast of the Nativity, a period that he set as beginning on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. While the Reformation led some later Protestants to stop observing Advent, Martin Luther, who loved the Christmas season, felt that it was still a useful way to teach children and families about the importance of the coming of the Babe of Bethlehem. As a result, Advent continued to be particularly important in Germany, from whence many of its customs have spread.

Perhaps the best-known Advent custom is the lighting of candles in an Advent wreath, a simple or decorated evergreen wreath with four candles placed in the circle and sometimes a single white candle in the center. In his First Presidency Christmas Devotional address in 2008, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf remembered this custom from his own childhood: “When I was very young and living in East Germany, Christmas in our family began four weeks before Christmas Eve with the beginning of Advent. We made a fresh cut wreath from a fir or a spruce and put four candles on top of it and placed it on our kitchen table. On the fourth Sunday before Christmas, we lit the first candle. Then each night until Christmas, my family gathered around the table and sang Christmas songs and listened to Christmas stories. . . . Advent was a time of anticipation and hope, and it brought a special feeling into our humble home as we prepared for something holy and beautiful. Each Sunday we lit one additional candle; by the fourth Sunday our expectations for the coming joyous events had reached their peak.”

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