Advent, Advent, ein Lichtlein brennt

Story and photo by Nicole Karsch-Meibom
Contributing writer

“Advent, Advent, ein Lichtlein brennt” — one little light is shining during Advent time.

This is the first phrase of the most known German poem that refers to the time up until Christmas. The word “Advent” derives from the Latin word “Adventus,“ which means “coming” and refers to the time from the fourth Sunday before Christmas until the Nativity of Christ is celebrated in Western churches. This first Sunday of Advent always falls on a day between Nov. 27 and Dec. 3. Historical sources indicate that Advent was first celebrated in the fourth century. Though it has its specific meaning within the liturgical year of the Christian churches, Advent is generally celebrated in Germany without a strong specific religious connotation.

The most common tradition is the Advent wreath. It is an ancient custom to have green twigs at home during winter months as a protection against evil. Those twigs symbolized life and fertility. The wreath is decorated with four candles. On the afternoon of the first Advent, families light one candle — as referred to in the poem above. On the consecutive Sundays, more and more candles are lit until they all shine. These tranquil moments are often spent singing traditional songs, eating holiday cookies or reading the Bible story of Christmas. It is considered a special time for all family members.

The tradition of the Advent calendar is much loved and anticipated by children. Little treats are hidden behind calendar doors or in bags hanging from the wall. Each day the child opens one door or bag to get to the sweets or presents hidden inside. 

On the morning of Dec. 6, German children celebrate Nikolaus, or Saint Nicklas. This fest is a celebration of the Bishop Nikolaus of Myra who lived in the fourth century and had been worshiped for his human kindness. One ancient story tells how a destitute father wanted to send his three daughters into prostitution. When Nikolaus heard about it, he threw gold through the man’s windows for three consecutive nights, saving the girls. When asked, the bishop said he had just acted upon his Christian duty. Because of legends like this, the custom of giving little presents to children came into existence.

Nowadays, on the evening of Dec. 5, children put their boots in front of their rooms and parents fill them with sweets, nuts and mandarines.

Quite recently, local communities have developed another custom to celebrate the time preceding Christmas, called “Adventsfenster,” or Advent window. Each early evening from Dec. 1 to 23, a family invites members of the neighborhood to gather in front of a decorated and illuminated window outside their home to sing Christmas and Advent carols, have a cup of mulled wine, and spend a few calm, but joyful, moments together. This is often organized by kindergartens or elementary schools and has become very popular in small communities.

Finally, there is the making of a gingerbread house, an ancient tradition dating back to the 15th century. Historians say it originates from the idea of Cockayne, the land of milk and honey. Later, the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel formed people’s idea of it, and since the turn of the 19th century, baking a gingerbread house has become popular in the time of Advent. Some say it is a symbol of health and happiness, and children love decorating it with sweets and sugar icing. As baking gingerbread can be a challenge, you can find prefabricated sets of gingerbread houses in the supermarkets that only need assembly and decoration.
So, with all these different traditions and customs, for most Germans, Advent is a time spent together. It’s a time spent with family and friends singing, baking or doing hand crafts in anticipation of Christmas.