The events that come to mind when we say “Christmas,” “Easter,” and “Pentecost” are so tremendous that their commemoration cannot be celebrated in a single day each. Weeks are needed: first, weeks of preparation, of becoming attuned in body and soul, and then weeks of celebration. This process goes back to an age when people still had time — time to live, time to enjoy.
In our day, we face the puzzling fact that the more time-saving gadgets we invent, the more new buttons to push in order to “save hours of work” — the less time we actually have. We have no more time to read books; we can afford only digests. We have no time to walk a quarter of a mile; we have to hop into a car. We have no time to make things by hand; we buy them ready-made. This “hurry up, let’s go” atmosphere does not provide the necessary leisure in which to anticipate and celebrate a feast. But as soon as people stop celebrating, they really do not live anymore—they are being lived, as it were.
The alarming question arises: What is being done with all the time that is constantly being saved? We invent more machines and more gadgets, which will relieve us more and more of the work formerly done by our hands, our feet, our brain, and which will carry us at feverishly increasing speed—where? Perhaps to the moon and other planets, but more probably to our final destruction.
Only the Church throws light onto the gloomy prospects of modern man—Holy Mother Church—for she belongs, herself, to a realm that has its past and present in time, but its future in the World without End.
It was fall when we arrived in the United States. The first weeks passed rapidly, filled with new discoveries every day, and soon we came across a beautiful feast that we had never celebrated: Thanksgiving Day, an exclusively American feast. With great enthusiasm we included it in the calendar of our family feasts.
Who can describe our astonishment, however, when a few days after our first Thanksgiving Day, we heard from a loudspeaker in a large department store the unmistakable melody of “Silent Night”! Upon our excited inquiry, someone said, rather surprised: “What is the matter? Nothing is the matter. Time for Christmas shopping!”
It took several Christmas seasons before we understood the connection between Christmas shopping and “Silent Night” and the other carols blaring from loudspeakers in these pre-Christmas weeks. And even now that we do understand, it still disturbs us greatly. These weeks before Christmas, known as the weeks of Advent, are meant to be spent in expectation and waiting. This is the season for Advent songs — those age-old hymns of longing and waiting; “Silent Night” should be sung for the first time on Christmas Eve.
We found, however, that hardly anybody knows any Advent songs. And we were startled by something else soon after Christmas: Christmas trees and decorations vanish from the show windows to be replaced by New Year’s advertisements. On our concert trips across the country, we also saw that the lighted Christmas trees disappear from homes and front yards, and no one thinks to sing a carol as late as January 2. This was all very strange to us, for we were used to the old-world Christmas, which was altogether different but which we were determined to celebrate now in our new country.
The Advent Wreath
In the week before the first Sunday in Advent, we began to inquire where we could obtain the various things necessary to make an Advent wreath.
“A what?” was the invariable answer, accompanied by a blank look.
And we learned that nobody seemed to know what an Advent wreath is. For us, it was not a question of whether we would have an Advent wreath. The wreath was a must. Advent would be unthinkable without it. The question was only how to get it in a country where nobody seemed to know about it.
Back in Austria, we used to go to a toy shop and buy a large hoop, about three feet in diameter. Then we would tie hay around it, three inches thick, as a foundation; and around this we would make a beautiful wreath of balsam twigs. The whole was about three feet in diameter and ten inches thick. As we tried the different toy shops in Philadelphia, the salespeople only smiled indulgently and made us feel like Rip Van Winkle. “Around the turn of the century” they had sold the last hoop.
“Necessity is the mother of invention.” Martina, who had made the Advent wreath during our last Advents back home, decided to buy strong wire at a hardware store and braid it into a hoop. Then she tied old newspaper around it, instead of hay, and went out to look for balsam twigs. We lived in Germantown, a suburb of Philadelphia. Martina looked at all the evergreens in our friends’ gardens, but there was no balsam fir. So she chose the next best and came home with a laundry basket full of twigs from a yew tree.
In the hardware store where she had bought the wire, she also got four tall spikes, which she worked into her newspaper reel as candle-holders, and, in the five-and-ten next door, she bought a few yards of strong red ribbon and four candles. The yew twigs made a somewhat feathery Advent wreath, but, said Martina, “It’s round and it’s made of evergreen, and that is all that is necessary.” And she was right. An Advent wreath is round as a symbol of God’s mercy, of which every season of Advent is a new reminder, and it has to be made of evergreens to symbolize God’s everlastingness.
Candles and Calendars
To get ready for the celebration of the beginning of Advent, one more thing has to be added: a tall, thick candle, the Advent candle, as a symbol of Him Whom we call “the Light of the World.” During these weeks of Advent, it will be the only light for the family evening prayer. Its feeble light is the symbol and reminder of mankind’s state of spiritual darkness during Advent.
On the first of January, a new calendar year begins; on the first Sunday of Advent, the new year of the Church begins. Therefore, the Saturday preceding the first Advent Sunday has something of the character of a New Year’s Eve. One of the old customs is to choose a patron saint for the new year of the Church. The family meets on Saturday evening, and with the help of the missal and a book called The Martyrology, which lists thousands of saints as they are celebrated throughout the year, they choose as many new saints as there are members of the household. We always choose them according to a special theme. One year, for instance, we had all the different Church Fathers; another year, we chose only martyrs; then, again, only saints of the new world. During the war, we chose one saint of every country at war.
The newly chosen names are handed over to the calligrapher of the family (first it was Johanna; after she married, Rosemary took over). She writes the names of the saints in gothic lettering on little cards. Then she writes the name of every member of the household on an individual card and hands the two sets over to the mother. Now everything is ready.
In the afternoon of the first Sunday of Advent, around Vespers time, the whole family — and this always means “family” in the larger sense of the word, including all the members of the household—meets in the living room. The Advent wreath hangs from the ceiling on four red ribbons; the Advent candle stands in the middle of the table or on a little stand on the side. Solemnly, the father lights one candle on the Advent wreath and, for the first time, the big Advent candle. Then he reads the Gospel of the first Sunday of Advent. After this, the special song of Advent is intoned for the first time, the ancient “Ye heavens, dew drop from above, and rain ye clouds the Just One.”
Art for this post: Cover and featured image used with permission.