Enchantment, even magic, is everywhere during a German Advent and Weihnachten. There is commercial hype but it's minimal, although these days the traditional seasonal specialties Stollen and Christmas Lebkuchen do begin to appear in the stores by October. Deeply entrenched Christmas traditions, religious and secular, the importance attached to the celebration of Advent, and family and friends, means it is a reflective as well as joyful festival.
Advent begins on the Sunday nearest to November 30, St. Andrews Day, so it starts on a different date each year and ancient German Christmas customs and festivities fill the four Sundays it covers.
Originally a time for Christians to be baptized, prepare for the "second coming", or fast from November 12 after the feast of St. Martin until Christmas Day, Advent is now a period of Contemplation, Anticipation, Tradition, Advent wreaths, Advent calendars, Weihnachtsplätzen (Christmas Cookies), and Weihnachtsmärkte. Christmas Markets.
On the First Sunday of Advent children write and decorate Christmas letters for "Christkind", the Christ Child who in many regions of Germany brings the presents and family Christmas tree on Heiligabend, Christmas Eve. The letters are then posted or put onto a windowsill for the Christ Child to collect.
Another essential element of German Christmas celebrations appears on the same day.
An Advent Wreath, Adventskranz. They were the original symbol for Advent, Weihnachtsbäumen (Christmas Trees) came later, and hang in churches or sit on a flat surface of most homes on that Sunday.
While making the annual Advent Wreath is an unmissable Christmas tradition for many.
Fronds of evergreens, conifer or box, purchased, or from the countryside or garden, are bound onto a straw or twisted twig ring base to make an evergreen circle.
It's a symbol of eternity and the triumph of life over darkness, and sprigs of Laurel are often included in the foliage to represent Christmas and courage; Rosemary for fragrance and remembrance; Holly and Ivy for good luck and eternal life; small pine cones and berries symbolize harvest.
In keeping with what used to be Advent's days of "Fasting and Piety", colored decorations are not added until Christmas Day when the wreath becomes a "Christmas wreath".
For Advent four candles are attached securely with special pins and one lit on each of the four Sundays leading to Christmas, so by the fourth Sunday all four will be burning.
The first Adventkränze had 28 candles. Four large and twenty four smaller. Three in purple symbolized Hope, Love and Peace, with one rose colored candle representing Joy lit on the third Sunday.
Now it is usual to see four of the same color: red, blue, green, white, gold or silver. Although a fifth and white candle is often placed in the center of the wreath.
This is the "Christ Candle" and representing Angels, the Birth of Jesus, and the Light of the World, it is lit on Christmas Eve and every day until Epiphany.
Lighting the candles is known as the "Adventstunde", which in some homes means prayers and a blessing of the Adventskranz, and traditionally families gather around the wreath with a large plate of Weihnachtsplätzen, some Gluehwein, Pharisaeer or another favorite seasonal drink at hand.
Lights are turned out, the candle lit and it flickers to a background of Christmas stories, Christmas carols or old and much loved German Christmas poems.
Advent, Advent, ein Lichtlein brennt,
Erst eins, dann zwei, dann drei, dann vier,
dann steht dan Christkind vor der Tuer,
which loosely translated means:
Advent Advent, a little light burns,
First one, then two, then three, then four,
Then the Christ Child stands in front of the door
The candle will be allowed to burn for an hour or during the evening meal, and large candles for a short time each evening for the following week, then re-lit together with a new one the next Sunday until all four burn.
This tradition is thought to have begun in Hamburg at the beginning of the 19th century, although wreaths originated in the north of a pagan Europe. Including what is now Norway, Sweden and Denmark. There, in the cold dark months leading to Winter Solstice, evergreens were gathered into round piles and candles placed upon them.
A circle with no beginning and no end, green leaves and light from the candles became associated with the yearly cycle, the continuation of life throughout winter and thankfulness for light from the sun.
A folk tradition that led to the Advent Wreaths that until relatively recently supplied color, festive atmosphere and aroma in German homes during the days leading to Heiligabend. It was not the custom to have a Christmas tree inside the home until Christmas Eve when, already decorated, it was "delivered" by Christkind together with all the gifts.
Throughout Germany and German speaking countries, even on some lakes, an Adventskranz with four candles marking the four weeks of Advent, and symbolizing the coming of Christmas, remains at the heart of most Weihnachten celebrations.
Have a wonderful "Adventszeit".
Illustrations: Adventskranz Katholische Kirchengemeinde St. Amandus, Datteln NRW; Floating Adventskranz on the Woerthersee, Carinthia, Austria, courtesy "TVB Woerthersee".