When will it be Christmas?

written on 25/11/2020
by Evi Rauscher

When will it be Christmas?

Who does not know this burning question that is asked by all children in the pre-Christmas period.

The Protestant-Lutheran theologian and educator Johann Heinrich Wichern was probably asked the same question over and over again by his pupils at the "Rauhe Haus (Rough House)" in Hamburg, an institution he founded in 1833 to care for children from poor backgrounds.

Like almost all children, they could not wait for Christmas to  come. To show them how much time they had to wait, in 1839 Wichern converted an old wagon wheel into a wooden wreath and placed 19 small red candles and 4 large white candles on it.

Every weekday, the children were allowed to light a red candle, but on Advent Sundays – the four Sundays before Christmas - they were allowed to light a white one. This way, the children always knew how many days were left until Christmas.

A nice knock-on effect was that they even learnt how to count in a simple way.

Advent, Advent, ein Lichtlein brennt. Erst eins, dann zwei, dann drei, dann vier, dann steht das Christkind vor der Tür.

(Advent, Advent, a little light is burning. First one, then two, then three, then four, then Baby Jesus stands at the door.)

Children rhyme for the Advent season

It was not until around 1860 that the wreath was also decorated with pine greenery and became generally accepted in Protestant churches and private households until the beginning of the 20th century.

In 1925 a wreath is also said to have hung for the first time in a Catholic church in Cologne. 

From the time after the Second World War at the latest, the Advent wreath can be found all over the world and in all possible forms.  In contrast to the Wichern wreath, there are usually only four candles on it.

The other candles have disappeared over the years due to the expense and lack of space, because to accommodate more than 20 candles, a wreath would have to have a diameter of at least one metre. 

The word "Advent" comes from the Latin word "adventus" and means "arrival". In the Christian churches, this is the time of preparation and anticipation of the feast of the birth of Christ.

Advent dates back to the 6th century. In the Roman Church, there were initially a changing number of 4 to 6 Sundays in Advent until Pope Gregory (590 - 604) established four Sundays in Advent as a standard. Therefore, the Advent season according to the Roman Rite lasts 4 weeks. 

In the Diocese of Milan in Italy, however, there are Advent wreathes with six candles. This is because they are following the Ambrosian rite, according to which Advent lasts six weeks.

Whether six or four weeks, the time spent waiting for Christmas to come always seems too long - not only for the little ones.

The Advent season is a special time for many German families. A contemplative mood, anticipation of Christmas, the smell of biscuits and festive music characterise this time. 

The Advent wreath is an important German pre-Christmas custom.

Traditionally, many people create it themselves from fir branches and decorate it with four candles. Every Advent Sunday one more is lit. It stands for the remaining days until Christmas Eve and symbolises the festivity of this special time.

How to make a Christmas wreath

Photo 1: ©Dirk Vorderstraße, Photo 5: ©Roman Eisele, Photo 6: ©Evi Rauscher