At the heart of symbolism

Advent, the expectation time

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The Advent's calendar

Advent's calendarJust before December, children receive a calendar they hang on a wall of their rooms. This calendar consists of twenty-four numbered squares or pockets that the child opens, day after day, from December 1st to 24th. He discovers a new picture or a small text, a new figure, a small gift or chocolate every day. The one he opens on December 24th is often bigger than the others, for it marks the end of the expectation of the Lord's coming.

These calendars became popular in the 70s and replaced the German Protestant family's custom where the children stuck a picture or a small text on a sheet every day. The first, hand made, calendars date back to the middle of the 19th century. The first marketed calendars go back to the beginning of the 20th century.

The Advent's crown

The crown is an attribute of the royal strength and priestly authority, a symbol of force and light. Made of braided greenery, it constitutes the emblem of strength over the outer or temporal nature and the inner or spiritual one. Laid horizontally on a table, the Advent crown corresponds to the horizontal projection of the vertical passage linking Earth and Heaven, the terrestrial power to the celestial authority.

It follows that the Advent's crown symbolizes the Child King and Priest unified in the Prophet (for more details, see the Wise Men).

Advent's crownThe crown carries four candles of which one is lit the first Advent's Sunday, two the second Sunday, three the third Sunday and all four the last Sunday 1. Then, the flames of the four lit candles draw the turn of a luminous helix rising towards Heaven as a garland enveloping the Christmas tree. A fifth candle is sometimes placed at the centre of the crown to signify the coming of the Lord.

The Advent's crown appeared in the Protestant circles of eastern Germany and Bohemia in the 16th century. The progressive lighting of the candles dates back to the middle of the 19th century. The Advent's crown looks very much like the Scandinavian crown of Santa Lucia, but no recognized relationship has been established between both of them.

The crown without candles, which is hung vertically on the entry door of a house, represents the horizontal passage between the outer and the inner of the dwelling and constitutes a welcoming sign. This custom of Anglo-Saxon origin did not spread to the rest of the world until the 1930s.

The crib

Nativity (1622) by Gerrit van HonthorstThe etymology of crib, from the German Krippe, refers to the “manger” where the child Jesus was wrapped up. However, the crib evokes more the cave where Joseph and Mary found refuge. All the more so since that the Christ's sepulchre was also a cave.

Just as the cave, the crib is synonymous with obscurity and darkness and characterizes the transformation place of the being attracted up by light. The cave symbolizes the womb where all being's possibilities develop, manifested and non manifested, visible and invisible, human and supra-human. During this passage from darkness to light, the being dies to lower order states to be re-born into higher order ones. After his physical birth, Jesus attained human and supra-human states; after his human death, Jesus Christ was supra-human only.

Evoking this progression results in putting beings at various levels of development on stage, through:

  • The ordinary life of the village population;
  • The cave, place of refuge of Joseph and Mary, but also of birth of a highly spiritual being;
  • The shepherds warned by celestial angels and becoming in turn terrestrial messengers;
  • The Wise Men guided by the divine star and carrying highly symbolic presents etc.

All this activity broke the expectation of Jesus' accomplishment destined to go on beyond Christmas.

It is mostly from the 16th century that monastic orders and Jesuits encouraged ostentatious representations of Nativity in reaction to the Protestant Reformation. The representations in real size or reduced models reached all Catholic European countries. The Neapolitan and Provençal were among the most popular ones. In contrast to the Neapolitan figures, often dressed with precious clothing, the Provençal figurines (or santons from the Provençal “santoun” or small holy) were made of painted terracotta. The realization of the crib in a family context only started in the 19th century.

The expectation time of Christmas covers the darkest period of the year, which precedes the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere. It conceals a present hidden at the very bottom of the last pocket of the Advent's calendar. A present which corresponds to the way out of darkness symbolized by the crib and the elevation towards light made in the image of the flame of a candle.


  • René Guénon:
  • "Symbols of the sacred Science". Editions Gallimard 1962;
  • Notably the chapter XXIV on the Cave and the Labyrinth.
  • Nadine Cretin:
  • "Festival of Mad, Saint John and Beautiful of May. A history of the calendar". Le Seuil Publishers 2006;
  • Particularly, the chapter on Christmas.

1 back Let us mention that the candles should, in principle, be successively lit in a counterclockwise order in agreement with the apparent mouvement of the stars around the pole axis in the nocturnal sky (see the orientation according to the astral bodies).