Letter-writers to the Times used to compete to hear the first cuckoo; in local newspapers we get letters complaining about the first sighting of Christmas cards for sale in shops – this year it was in August. Shops put up their decorations in October, pubs and restaurants cook turkeys and television advertisements count down to Christmas. Christmas has started before the beginning of Advent. The lead-up to Christmas has become a season of partying as firms try to fit in their work party before everyone collapses in front of the television for Christmas Day and Boxing Day – then it’s down with the decorations on the 27th and back to work. It was not ever thus.
Christmas traditionally started at midnight on 24th December; before then there was a season of preparation. Traditionally, Advent was a time of penitence, not unlike Lent which prepares for Easter with fasting. It was a solemn season with no decorations in church and the altar covered in a purple cloth. On the four Sundays of Lent the sermons would be on the ‘Four Last Things’ – Death and Judgment, Heaven and Hell. The old edition of the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church points out, in solemn tones, that ‘The season is observed as a time of preparation not only for Christmas but also for the second Coming of Christ as Judge at the last Day.’
The word advent comes from the Latin advenire which means to come to, arrive or reach. Ronald Blythe, in The Circling Year, points out that adventure has the same root: ‘Adventure means a hazardous enterprise’. He recounts an adventure he undertook which nearly ended in disaster and concludes, ‘I felt unsafe, yet exhilarated, and this is how we are apt to feel in Advent. The air is filled with anticipation.’
I felt anticipation in a rather different way on the evening of one First Sunday in Advent over thirty years ago when I attended the Advent service in Durham Cathedral. Standing in darkness at the back of this huge building I, with hundreds of others, waited for the arrival of light – carried in as the flames of candles by the choir entering from the cloisters. Just a few flickering candles lit up the huge dark spaces arching above, and a few clear young voices broke the silence with pure song. They processed the length of the building from west to east, ‘from darkness to light’. The service made use of old English liturgies, since these ‘made a more vivid preparation for the coming of Christ than those of the Book of Common Prayer’, and also used ancient carols, including this fourteenth-century carol which makes use of traditional imagery: the Virgin Mary was described as a Rose.
A spotless Rose is blowing,
Sprung from a tender root,
Of ancient seers’ foreshowing,
Of Jesse promised fruit;
Its fairest bud unfolds to light
Amid the cold, cold winter,
And in the dark midnight.
The Rose which I am singing,
Whereof Isaiah said,
Is from its sweet root springing
In Mary, purest Maid;
For, through our God’s great love and might,
The Blessed Babe she bare us
In a cold, cold winter’s nights.