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Advent in the Middle Ages

By Sandra Alvarez

As December gets into full swing, many of you will be popping open a little window on a calendar and enjoying a chocolate surprise to count down the days until Christmas. As you can see, my Advent calendar is far from medieval, but it’s something I’ve enjoyed since I was a child.

My Star Wars Advent Calendar - Sadly, this delicious tradition isn't medieval.
My Star Wars Advent Calendar – Sadly, this delicious tradition isn’t medieval.

As I was eating my Advent chocolate today, I wondered how this period was celebrated in the Middle Ages, and what traditions surrounded the weeks leading up to Christmas. As for the chocolate Advent calendar, that was a nineteenth century German invention, so unfortunately, my favourite method of counting down to Christmas is not medieval.

When Did Advent Begin?

Advent begins on the first Sunday after St. Andrew’s Day (November 27th). It has been observed since the fourth century, when it was viewed as a time for Christian converts to prepare for Baptism on Epiphany (January 6th), and believed to signal not only Christ’s birth, but his Second Coming. It was celebrated for a much longer period of time in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, spanning over the course of five Sundays.

Detail of an historiated initial ‘D'(omine) of the Virgin and Child, with an illusionistic border with flowers, strawberries, a bird, a snail, and a butterfly, at the beginning of the Hours of Advent. – British Library MS Yates Thompson 29 f. 75

How did it officially begin? In the late fifth century, the Gallic Bishop, Perpetuus of Tours ordered fasting to take place for three days every week from the Feast of St. Martin on November 11th, until Christmas. This was known as Quadragesimal Sancti Martini (Forty Days Fast of St. Martin).

In the eighth century, Advent was shortened to four weeks but there were many liturgical differences and dating practices, that weren’t resolved until the eleventh century. The period has been known officially as “Advent”, in Latin, Adventus, the “Second Coming”, since the thirteenth century although the term was used earlier. It is traditionally a time for penance, reflection, fasting and prayer.

Advent Foods

Although it wasn’t as strict as Lent, Advent adhered to a rather long period of fasting: three days per week, known as “Ember Days”, (three days in one week – Wednesday, Friday and Saturday) where only one meal a day was eaten that consisted of fish or vegetables. Pregnant women, children, the old, infirm, or those who were doing physical labour were exempt from fasting. Christians were expected to refrain from meat, dairy products, wine, fat, ale and honeyed beer but eggs were permitted. They were also expected to abstain from gambling, sex, getting married or unnecessary travel. The fasting helped meat supplies go further over the winter and gave people something to look forward to of Christmas.

Traditional Advent Wreath

Advent Wreath

The Advent wreath began as a tradition where people lit candles on wheel shaped bundles of evergreen. The circular shape was said to symbolise life, and the candles provided light during the darkest part of the year. The wreath caught on throughout Europe and it was made popular by German Lutherans in the sixteenth century. The wreath often contains three purple candles to represent peace, love and hope; the vestments worn by clergy during Advent, and because purple is also a penitential colour. There is one rose candle, to celebrate Gaudete Sunday (Joy Sunday) celebrated on the third Sunday in Advent, and lastly, a white candle is lit and placed in the centre of the wreath on Christmas.

A Time of Peace

“You shall also keep this peace every day of the week fro the beginning of Advent to the octave of Epiphany ~Drogo, Bishop of Terouanne, 1063 AD.

The first official “Truce of God” agreement was recored in 1027 at the Council of Toulouges. Since this was a time of penance and reflection, no violence was permitted during this time of the year.

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