A mischievous older priest once told me, “When someone says ‘We’ve always done it that way,’ it usually means ten years, but seldom longer than the tenure of the last rector.” The fact is that many of our practices that we think of as ancient are in fact quite recent compared to the life of the church, and some of our most beloved Advent and Christmas traditions are among them.
The Advent wreath is perhaps the tradition most associated with the season, and the combination of evergreen boughs with four candles seems to be such an apt symbol for the season that it is easy to assume that it is an ancient or at least medieval tradition. In fact, the Advent wreath was invented in 1839 by Johann Wichern, a German Lutheran pastor at a mission school in Hamburg. The children at the school would ask every day how long it was until Christmas, so Pastor Wichern affixed four large white candles and 24 small red candles to a wagon wheel, lighting one candle successively each Sunday and weekday. The custom caught on among German Lutherans and spread to German Catholics in the 1920’s, but was not seen in the United States until the 1930’s, or in England until the 1960’s.
Until very recently, the Advent wreath was considered a nice tradition for the home, but not necessarily something one would observe in church. The only mention of the wreath in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer is in the “Additional Directions” for candles at Evening Worship on page 143: “During Advent, the lighting of an Advent Wreath may take place after the Prayer for Light.” The Book of Occasional Services, the priest’s guide for special occasions, is even cooler: under the heading “Concerning the Advent Wreath,” it sniffs: “When used in the church, no special prayers or ceremonial elaboration beyond what is described on page 143 of the Prayer Book is desirable.”
The Advent wreath is really a sort of ritualized form of the Advent calendar, but it seems that we owe that tradition to restless 19th-century German Lutheran schoolchildren as well. The Advent calendar was designed as a teaching tool with a Bible verse hidden behind each window, intended to edify (and pacify) children who were eager for Christmas. Contemporary versions with chocolate or even jewelry behind each window serve the same purpose for impatient adults.
And any conversation about the Advent wreath has to address the burning question (sorry, couldn’t help it) of the correct color for the candles: should they be violet, blue or white, and should the third Sunday’s candle be pink? In fact, the idea of uniform liturgical colors is modern: before the liturgical revival of the late nineteenth century, the “standard” colors for vestments and paraments varied widely from one church to another. Parishes who could afford it might try to match their colors to those used in their own cathedral, but most held only to the practice of using the “best” vestments for major feasts, “second best” for lesser feasts, and “everyday” for everything else.
One can search through the entire 1979 Book of Common Prayer and not find any mention of specific colors for seasons or feasts. The colors that we think of as standard are generally those adopted by the Roman Catholic Church after Vatican II.
The question of violet or blue for Advent dates from the Oxford Movement in the Church of England. In an effort to emphasize the Catholic roots of Anglicanism, certain Anglo-Catholics encouraged the revival of the “Sarum Rite:” the liturgy as celebrated at the Cathedral of Salisbury in the 11th century. In fact, little is known about the actual practice of the Sarum Rite, and even less of it was ever adopted into modern practice, with the exception of the use of “Sarum blue” for Advent instead of violet. Some cynical folks have suggested that “Sarum blue” was invented by makers of liturgical furnishings, who could thus sell a fifth set of vestments and paraments to every church.
The Hanging of the Greens (or the Greening of the Church), the decoration of the church with evergreen boughs on the first Sunday of Advent, also seems to date only to the early 20th century in the US, although the tradition may be much older in northern Europe. Evergreens like cedar, pine and holly which keep their green leaves through the winter are used as symbols of eternal life in scripture, and in fact were common symbols of rebirth in pagan religions as well.
And of course, the Greening is closely related to the Christmas tree. The tradition of decorating a tree with fruits, nuts, sweets, and small toys for Christmas seems to date to the 15th century in Germany, Poland, and the Baltic lands, although the use of trees in religious ritual (or even the worship of trees themselves) is very ancient: witness the prophets’ long campaign against sacred groves and asherah poles throughout the Torah. By the 18th century, the Christmas tree was seen as a particularly Protestant tradition, as compared with the Catholic Nativity Scene or crèche.
The crèche itself is an interesting case. St. Francis of Assisi is credited with staging the first Nativity pantomime in 1223, inspired by a journey to Bethlehem. The pantomime became popular (as did almost anything having to do with Francis), and staged scenes with statues or figurines instead of live actors and animals were easier to deal with. As was standard in medieval religious art, the manger scene includes overlapping narratives: the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in the manger, the visit from the shepherds, and the rejoicing angels from Luke, as well as the Star of Bethlehem and the visitation of the Magi and the offering of their gifts from Matthew. Like many churches, we don’t move the Magi into the scene until Epiphany, perhaps as a way of untangling the separate stories.
Knowing too much of the background and provenance of our Advent and Christmas traditions may seem to diminish them: what we thought was ancient and eternal may in fact be recent and invented. But that need not be a problem. We believe that Christ is incarnate and the Spirit continues to speak, and God does something new in every generation. What makes something a tradition is not that it is old, but that it is worth handing down. What makes something worth handing down is that it continues to speak, continues to be a channel of grace, continues to point beyond itself to the mystery it embodies.