‘Why austere Advent beats cheesy Christmas’

Oh come, all ye faithful: The Choir of Jesus College, Cambridge prepares for Christmas.© PA

Is Advent better than Christmas? The season of Advent has officially begun and will continue until midnight on Christmas Eve. Some say the anticipation trumps Christmas Day.

From the decorations in your local supermarket to the early sighting of a tree in a living room, it can seem like Christmas is an endless festival lasting for most of November and December.

But, strictly speaking, Christmas Day is only the beginning of Christmas, not the end. The season that precedes it is Advent. Several well-known “Christmas” hymns, such as O come, O come Emanuel, are, in fact, Advent hymns.

For Christians, Advent, which starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, is a time of waiting and preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus.

The word “advent” comes from the Latin for “the coming”. Since medieval times, Christians have spoken of three comings, all of which are central to Advent: “In the flesh in Bethlehem, in our hearts daily, and in glory at the end of time”.

Traditionally, it has also been a season of austere denial, in sharp contrast to the rush of consumerism greeting the weeks before Christmas. French children are taught that Advent is le petit Carême (“little Lent”).

For many people, the anticipation of Advent, with its chilly, candle-lit cathedrals, is not only more enriching than Christmas but also makes the true festive season even better.

The waiting game

The slow procession through an Advent calendar, gradually edging towards the day itself, is, for some people, one of the most memorable things about the winter months. Nothing can beat the gradual accumulation of presents under the tree. Without periods of austerity, pleasure would be meaningless.

What nonsense, reply others. Advent traditions were invented in a time when a shortage of luxuries meant enjoyment was hard to come by. But now our societies are rich and plentiful. Why is it seen as virtuous to live a life of monotony and boredom? We should chase as much pleasure as we can.

You Decide

  1. Is Advent better than Christmas itself?


  1. In pairs, agree to give up one thing until Christmas Day, and keep track of each other’s progress.

Some People Say...

“Life is a journey, not a destination.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), US writer and philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Many believe that Advent simply starts on the first day of December. In fact, it is the fourth Sunday before Christmas, which this year is 1 December.
What do we not know?
We do not know whether modern society’s blending of Advent and Christmas will last forever. And while Lent itself has dwindled in popularity, self-denial is still popular, as seen by campaigns like Dry January.

Word Watch

Beginning of Christmas
Christmas is reckoned to last for 12 days, from 25 December 25 to 6 January.
Comes before.
Advent hymns
Any hymns paving the way for the birth of Christ count as Advent hymns, whereas those celebrating the event itself, such as Once in Royal David’s City or Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, are Christmas carols.
Medieval times
In Europe, the Middle Ages (or medieval times) lasted from the 5th to the 15th century.
Severe or strict.
The average British family spends more than £800 on Christmas.
The period of about six weeks between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, during which some Christians fast or give up luxuries.
Lack of variety; same routine.

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