The liturgical countdown to Christmas began Sunday with Advent services in churches around the world.
Rooted in preparations for the pagan Saturnalia, or winter solstice festivals, Advent commences on the Sunday that falls on or closest to Nov. 30, the feast day of St. Andrew the Apostle.
Advent, which is Latin for “coming,” ends with the first evening prayer of Christmas.
The idea behind the season of expectation is to be prepared for the commemoration of the birth of Christ and to look forward to his second coming at the end of time. The architect of Advent as observed by western Christianity was Pope Gregory I, who fixed the season at four weeks, composed seasonal prayers and antiphons, and arranged the Mass and Office lectionary.
Orthodox Christians continue to observe a nativity fast from Nov. 15 until Christmas rather than the nearly four weeks of Advent.
The most recognized symbol of Advent, a wreath holding four candles, is rooted in European folk traditions rather than religion.
Traditionally, an advent wreath contains four candles — three purple and one rose or pink. Purple dyes were so rare and costly that they were associated with royalty. Blue candles, representing the night sky before daylight returns, are also used.
Candles are lit each Sunday during Advent.
The first, representing hope, is called the Candle of the Prophet and recalls the prophecies foretelling the coming of Christ. The second, symbolizing peace, is the Bethlehem Candle, for the town where Jesus was born.
The third, the rose-colored candle, represents joy and is called the Shepherd Candle in honor of the shepherds to whom the birth was announced. The fourth, symbolizing love, is the Angel Candle in remembrance of the angels who heralded Christ’s birth. A white fifth candle is sometimes lit and placed inside the Advent wreath on Christmas Day.